Tyler Donohue/Land of 10
Tight end Zack Kuntz (left) and receiver Justin Shorter (right) provide more offensive firepower for Penn State, while Jesse Luketa (second from left) and Charlie Katshir are two of four linebacker signees.

National Signing Day grades: Penn State linebackers, receivers headline 2018 class

Penn State enjoyed an immensely successful 2018 recruiting cycle, punctuating the process with one last big-time addition on National Signing Day. The Nittany Lions landed elite tackle Rasheed Walker on Wednesday afternoon, pushing the 2018 class total to 23 players.

After signing top-25 classes on each of his first four Signing Days in State College, James Franklin secured a top-5 overall collection of talent in 2018. Penn State punctuated its class Wednesday with the addition of Walker, who is the 12th Nittany Lions signee considered a top-10 prospect at their respective position.

The class was listed fourth overall and seconnd among Big Ten programs in the 247Sports composite rankings as of 5 p.m. Wednesday, representing the finest finish for Penn State since the recruiting industry expanded online nearly 20 years ago. It’s the first top-10 Nittany Lions class since 2006, and sets up the roster for continued success.

Following the culmination of a class that was truly years in the making, we assess how Penn State fared on both sides of the ball — with a dash of special teams news —and issued grades. Though we won’t actually be able to measure the impact of this class until four or five years into the future, instant reactions are tremendously positive.

Grading Penn State’s 2018 offensive signing class

Franklin has repeatedly stressed the importance of developing an identity along the offensive front. This class accomplished the staff’s continued effort in that department, as Penn State signed a pair of top-10 tackles (Walker and Nana Asiedu), a top-5 center (Fredrick Scruggs) and a versatile 3-star recruit (Bryce Effner) who coaches believe can contribute at tackle or guard.

The recent emergence of young, impact offensive linemen such as Ryan Bates, Will Fries and Connor McGovern helped establish the foundation of a unit that finished 2017 on a high note. Increased competition awaits in the form of these four freshmen and a group of 2017 signees who warranted redshirt status last fall.

Increased effectiveness in the trenches is great news for 5-star running back Ricky Slade. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound playmaker provides an all-purpose threat, evidenced by a final high school season in which he tallied 2,700 yards and accounted for 40 touchdowns.

Slade expects to compete for early reps as Penn State attempts to replace Saquon Barkley, and Slade pointed to the possibility of roles as a slot receiver and special teams returner. He is one of several new, skilled weapons first-year offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne will have at his disposal this year.

Justin Shorter is the 2018 cycle’s top-ranked receiver, and the 6-foot-4, 220-pound prospect proved it in both game action and on a highly competitive camp circuit. It’s difficult to see him spending 2018 sidelined if healthy, while 4-star receivers Jahan Dotson and Daniel George also boost a positional group that features three rising redshirt freshmen.

It won’t receive as much attention as Penn State’s post-Barkley backfield, but tight end is clearly a position to monitor closely following the departure of record-setting senior Mike Gesicki. The Nittany Lions may look to youth while addressing that void after signing two top-10 tight ends in Pat Freiermuth and Zack Kuntz, who enrolled early last month.

Quarterback Will Levis doesn’t have the gaudy recruiting rankings of several offensive counterparts in this class, but there’s a reason he emerged as a coveted commodity across Power 5 conferences last summer. The 6-foot-4, 222-pound Connecticut product brings above-average athleticism to the position and made substantial fundamental strides in 2017 en route to compiling nearly 2,800 passing yards and 33 total touchdowns.

There may always be a “What if?” factor following the June 2017 de-commitment of 5-star quarterback Justin Fields, but Levis was a savvy pickup for the staff. If or when his opportunity arrives in Happy Valley, he won’t be lacking for a supporting cast on offense thanks in large part to the successes of this 2018 recruiting cycle.

It’s also important to note the addition of kicker Jake Pinegar, who displayed range from beyond 50 yards as a senior. He will be firmly in the mix for starting duties as Penn State looks to fill a role left behind by Tyler Davis, and he leaves Penn State’s special teams in good shape, as well.

Grade: A

Grading Penn State’s 2018 defensive signing class

Not to be outdone by Penn State’s offensive pickups, the Nittany Lions defense received an exciting influx of talent in 2018. While Kuntz was the only offensive player to enroll early, defensive coordinator Brent Pry welcomed five freshmen to campus in January.

The linebacker unit was particularly impacted by this wave of early arrivals.

Micah Parsons, a 5-star recruit and top-5 overall prospect, earned plenty of attention across college football for his potential at defensive end but will begin college at middle linebacker. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Harrisburg (Pa.) alum earned U.S. Army All-American Bowl Defensive Player of the Year honors as a high school senior and also made a strong case for consideration as Pennsylvania’s premier prep running back.

Jesse Luketa, a Canadian transplant who landed more than 30 offers after transferring south of the border to Mercyhurst Prep in Erie, Pa., is a rangy linebacker who has experience covering the pass as a safety and the size (6-3, 235 pounds) to hold his own near the line of scrimmage. He is a natural leader who aims to duplicate the locker room impact of 2017 Nittany Lions captain Jason Cabinda.

Linebacker Jesse Luketa was a two-time all-state selection in high school. (Jesse Luketa/Twitter)

Nick Tarburton has shed 10-15 pounds since enrolling, according to Franklin, though he remains a candidate to transition from linebacker to defensive end during his college career. This trio of linebackers will be joined by Charlie Katshir in the summer.

Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer searched for “Wild Dogs” throughout the 2018 cycle and he found them. The Nittany Lions landed top-10 prospects at defensive tackle (P.J. Mustipher) and defensive end (Jayson Oweh), while Judge Culpepper and Aeneas Hawkins provide flexibility and pedigree as the sons of former NFL players.

Safety Isaiah Humphries is also the son of a former NFL player, former Penn State defensive back Leonard Humphries. He is one of two early enrollees from Texas, along with cornerback Trent Gordon, who was labeled a “pleasant surprise” by Franklin based on his early efforts with the program.

The secondary also welcomes 4-star cornerback Jordan Miner in June. Franklin explained he would’ve liked to add one more safety to this mix, but like other levels of the defense it adds an undeniable dose of young talent in 2018.

Grade: A

Grading Penn State’s 2018 overall signing class

What’s not to like about this group?

It might be Penn State’s deepest recruiting class ever, and features more 16 blue-chip prospects. When you’re looking down in recruiting class rankings at three of the four College Football Playoff competitors, there’s plenty of positive vibes to be found.

This well-rounded class features several genuine difference-makers on both sides of the ball. It has the potential to not just sustain recent success in State College, but take it to an entirely new level in the years ahead.

Grade: A-plus

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