Penn State spent years assembling its 2018 recruiting class, and those efforts paid off when James Franklin signed 23 prospects to secure the program’s first top-5 finish on National Signing Day. This group’s potential began to blend with present-day reality for the Nittany Lions in January when six signees arrived on campus as mid-year enrollees.
This influx of talented athletes — representing Pennsylvania, Texas and Canada — impacted Penn State in several areas. The Nittany Lions welcomed three linebackers (Jesse Luketa, Micah Parsons and Nick Tarburton), two defensive backs (Trent Gordon and Isaiah Humphries) and a touted tight end (Zack Kuntz).
Luketa and Kuntz are considered top-10 prospects at their positions in the 247Sports 2018 composite rankings. Parsons is the highest-ranked Penn State recruit since 2005. Simply put, expectations are immense.
“All those guys are really competitive and are working really hard and have been really supportive of one another and so far, so good,” Franklin said Feb. 7.
Three weeks later, the Nittany Lions opened their 30th winter workout session to media members. An initial glimpse at these freshmen, along with feedback from director of performance enhancement Dwight Galt, provided some insight regarding their early development.
“From a strength and conditioning perspective, they’ve been phenomenal,” Galt said. “They came in here and we tested them out thoroughly, and after we did that we just started cranking.”
Early enrollment enables freshmen to integrate themselves with life as Division I student-athletes. These extra months allow players to explore newfound social independence, focus on physical advancement and establish relationships with coaches, teammates and academic support staff well in advance of their first collegiate season.
“I’m ready to learn and ready to work,” Luketa told Land of 10 before heading to Happy Valley. “I want to get into the weight room with those guys and prepare my body for college football. It will also allow me to grow more comfortable around campus and become a familiar face with my teammates.”
Penn State stresses the importance of identifying those within the program as family. During the course of two months, these six Nittany Lions newcomers have evolved from high school standouts to trusted components of a collective effort.
“They were right in with the group right away,” Galt said. “They’ve definitely all earned respect, they’ve all been accountable, and they’re all doing a great job in school. It’s a great group of guys and we’re really pleased with them.”
It’s an appropriate time to assess the progress of Penn State’s freshmen, who are on spring break until March 13. Now, between their first round of winter workouts and spring camp, interest continues to rise about those who could earn playing time in 2018.
“We’ll see. They’re [five] months early so we’ll see what happens and if someone can possibly help us this year,” Galt said.
Penn State applied redshirt status to 18 of the 21 signees in its 2017 recruiting class. Among the four athletes who enrolled early last winter, only defensive back Lamont Wade saw action during his first college campaign.
The opportunity to make an immediate impact is routinely a key motivating factor when players elect to pursue mid-year enrollment.
“It is important because I want to learn the plays earlier so that I can get on the field quicker as a true freshman,” Gordon told Land of 10 in December. “One of my goals is to either start or be in rotation with the other defensive backs when the season starts.”
Among Nittany Lions fans, attention in this department is directed mostly toward Parsons. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Harrisburg (Pa.) product received a Nittany Lions scholarship offer shortly after his freshman high school season, and he is considered an all-time prep talent in Pennsylvania.
Identified as America’s premier defensive end prospect throughout much of his recruitment, Parsons starts this next phase of a widely monitored football career at middle linebacker. Only hours after receiving Parsons’ signed letter of intent on Dec. 20, Franklin announced the position decision and didn’t hesitate to set a high bar.
“We think with him graduating early, he’s got a chance to kind of learn it and have a chance to truly compete for the job come the fall,” Franklin said.
Oftentimes the hype that accompanies a high-profile recruitment will diminish after Signing Day. Don’t expect that to be the case with Parsons.
Last month, upon learning Parsons will wear his No. 11 jersey, legendary Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington delivered an emphatic assessment.
“This young man will grow into a fine man and lead this team,” Arrington wrote. “Here’s my bold proclamation… Micah will be the best that ever put 11 on. LBU is alive and well.”
It’s always intriguing, particularly from a team chemistry standpoint, to observe how a celebrated high school recruit transitions to a setting in which he is challenged to “prove it” all over again. To this point, Parsons has handled the process exceptionally well.
“Obviously he’s a 5-star [prospect] and kind of renowned in the entire country but one thing that Micah did is when you come up here the stars disappear,” Galt said. “Instead of being the 5-star, [fifth]-ranked kid in the country, he became one of the guys.”
Work ethic, not entitlement, defines Parsons’ early days in State College.
“You would never know by the way he acts. He works just like everybody else; he’s fit in really well,” Galt said. “Not a big talker, but he’s extremely motivated to be the best player he can be. I train the linebackers, and it’s really been a pleasure training him.”
Where @Micah_Parsons11 goes, the media will follow.
Penn State's top-ranked recruit in more than a decade remains the center of attention. pic.twitter.com/Qj1ppiO7g4
— Tyler Donohue (@TDsTake) February 28, 2018
Winter workouts served as the first proving ground and helped to fine-tune each from an athletic standpoint. Luketa and Tarburton shed weight, Kuntz packed on pounds, while their classmates were directed to “maximize lean mass”, according to Galt.
The transformation of Penn State’s freshmen will continue later this month upon the opening of spring practice. This step forward presents a multitude of challenges, ranging from playbook concepts and passionate competition to unseen game speed and mental fatigue.
Franklin built a Big Ten champion without the benefit of a top-10 recruiting class. Penn State won 20 of its past 23 games while putting former 3-star prospects in key positions across the field.
A standard has been set, and now a heralded freshman class will attempt to further elevate it. Based on the Nittany Lions staff’s reaction to this first cluster of newcomers, precedent is in place for the remaining signees who will join them in June.