The Penn State football program opened plenty of eyes last season when it secured a Big Ten title and earned its first Rose Bowl appearance in eight years. Now faced with heightened expectations, Nittany Lions coach James Franklin is piecing together a sustainable foundation via widespread recruiting success.
The fourth-year coach, who signed top-20 classes in each of his first three full-cycle recruiting classes at Penn State, appears primed to land his most talented group of players next winter.
The Nittany Lions are listed No. 3 overall in 247Sports’ 2018 composite class rankings. This collection of 13 committed recruits continues a trend of active efforts far beyond conference territory.
It represents eight states and features five prospects considered top-100 overall athletes in the 2018 class. The highest-ranked members of the group provide context for an expanding Penn State mission to attract America’s premier players, regardless of their hometown.
Coveted quarterback Justin Fields attends high school in Georgia. Fellow 5-star prospect Ricky Slade, a running back, and top-10 offensive tackle Nana Asiedu reside in Virginia. Justin Shorter, a top-10 receiver vying for 5-star status, is the No. 1 prospect in New Jersey.
The team also claims commitments from a pair of Texas defensive backs, offensive linemen from Big Ten backyards in Illinois and Michigan, and the top-ranked recruit from Massachusetts.
The New England standout is 4-star TE Pat Freiermuth, who is one of eight Penn State pledges considered a top-10 prospect in their respective states. Among that group, six are ranked among the top three players in their state.
“People are seeing what we have going on in Happy Valley is no joke,” said Jesse Luketa, an in-state linebacker pledge who is originally from Ottawa, Ontario.
This trend falls in line with the 2017 cycle, in which the Nittany Lions landed nine signees listed as top-10 talents at state level. However, the difference in this march to National Signing Day is a volume of recruiting victories beyond Pennsylvania and conference turf at large.
Penn State remains a major force in the “DMV” area — Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia — that is now a scene of constant clashes between ACC and Big Ten schools. The 2014 conference inclusion of Maryland and Rutgers created opportunities for greater reach in the Mid-Atlantic area, and Franklin’s staff has found its groove there.
“It’s been huge,” university athletic director Sandy Barbour told Land of 10 earlier this month. “Penn State ends up being the bridge. We have huge alumni populations in NYC and in Washington D.C,, and in Baltimore. So I think it’s been a huge positive for us.”
Penn State pipelines to places such as DMV and New Jersey provide significant lifeblood for the program. These regions produced standouts such as LB Jason Cabinda, TE Mike Gesicki and QB Trace McSorley.
Still, as we watch Franklin attempt to push his team further toward the echelon of perennial College Football Playoff contenders, the long-distance additions signify substantial development.
The Nittany Lions followed up winter commitments from Texas DBs Trent Gordon and Isaiah Humphries by scouring the state for top 2019 talent throughout spring evaluation. Elite Lone Star State sophomores such as LB Marcel Brooks, WR Arjei Henderson, TE Austin Stogner and S Brian Williams have been offered by Penn State.
Brooks, listed No. 7 nationally among outside linebackers in 247Sports’ 2019 rankings, called Penn State his “dream school” May 22 upon receiving an offer.
Blessed to receive an offer from my dream school Penn state😳 pic.twitter.com/v9ttRsPro5
— AKA SNIPER5 (@MarcelBrooks_5) May 22, 2017
Similar early efforts are also underway in Georgia, where the Nittany Lions staff begins its four-stop satellite camp circuit in June. Highly touted Peach State prospects Rashad Cheney (defensive tackle) and Kenyatta Watson (safety) each picked up a Penn State offer May 9.
“I just remember [Penn State coaches] asking, ‘Who’s he?’ [at a Grayson High School practice], ” Watson recalled. “My defensive backs coach let them know who I was, then they asked me to come over to say hello and size me up, I guess.”
Franklin and assistants are taking a proactive approach. This applies even to young players pledged elsewhere. Cheney is committed to Georgia, and Watson is a member of Florida State’s 2019 class.
Any attempt for an outside program to establish roots in a state such as Georgia, at the epicenter of consistent territorial battles between ACC and SEC powers, isn’t an easy mission. But the Nittany Lions have reason for confidence, considering Franklin currently claims a commitment from Georgia’s crown jewel of the 2018 cycle.
Fields, considered the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in composite rankings, pledged to Penn State in December. Despite endless attention from schools such as Auburn, Georgia, LSU and Florida (he hears from five Gators coaches every day), he wraps up his junior year as the top-ranked member of Franklin’s class.
“If Justin does come, it will be big for all of us,” Shorter said. “He’s just that dream quarterback everyone wants on their team, so it would be awesome.”
Simply put, he's impressive.
I put together these highlights.
— Tyler Donohue (@TDsTake) May 21, 2017
These “dream quarterbacks” aren’t a dime a dozen. There might be four or five truly elite players at the position in any given cycle, and only Clemson commit Trevor Lawrence joins Fields as a 5-star quarterback prospect in composite rankings.
The ability to close a lengthy, long-distance recruitment, even when immediate playing time doesn’t appear likely, is an element that separates college football’s kings from everyone else. Just last winter, we witnessed three-time national champion Urban Meyer seal the deal with prized dual-threat passer Tate Martell, despite a loaded Ohio State quarterback depth chart.
Many of Penn State’s remaining priority 2018 prospect targets reside at least a significant drive beyond Happy Valley. A combination of continued success in states such as Maryland and New Jersey, along with handling business on home turf with players such as Philadelphia DB Isheem Young, would vault the Nittany Lions to new heights on the recruiting trail this decade.
Under Franklin, Penn State peaked with the No. 15 overall class in 2015 and 2017, but signs point toward a secure spot in top-10 territory. A steadily growing spotlight, primed to expand if the program duplicates its 2016 success, bodes well for continued presence in foreign recruiting regions.