Penn State further solidified its foundation for a promising future on National Signing Day, completing a 2018 recruiting class that includes 23 prospects. A No. 5 ranking in 247Sports’ composite class rankings represented the Nittany Lions’ best-ever finish.
This highly successful cycle included its share of setbacks, something all teams experience, along with unexpected developments and major changes to the college football recruiting calendar. Signing Day is the culmination of a lengthy process that lasts years in some cases, and by the time these efforts wrap up, you’re left with at least a few “what-ifs.”
These are scenarios encountered during the cycle that would have altered the class’ outcome had results been different. Penn State shouldn’t regret much considering the way it performed on the 2018 recruiting trail, but sudden changes impacted the program both positively and negatively along the way.
Here is a review of four what-ifs that ultimately helped determine the trajectory for coach James Franklin’s finest Nittany Lions class.
What if … Justin Fields remained in the Lions class?
Penn State landed a home-run verbal pledge in December 2016 when Harrison (Kennesaw, Ga.) High School quarterback Justin Fields became a fairly early class addition. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound playmaker was considered a 4-star recruit at that time, but his recruitment rapidly exploded during a six-month Nittany Lions commitment.
Alabama, Florida, Florida State and Texas helped push his scholarship offer total beyond 40 programs by mid-April. Fields visited Happy Valley on April 22 for Penn State’s spring game, and repeatedly affirmed plans to attend the university during media interviews, but a crowd was clearly forming in this recruitment.
National attention reached a new level during the first week of June when Fields wowed at Elite 11 finals in Los Angeles. He de-committed from Penn State on June 6, just one day after earning an invitation to The Opening (where he would claim Elite 11 MVP honors).
“Justin has everything you want in a quarterback,” Elite 11 instructor Quincy Avery told Land of 10. “He has the ability to make all the different throws. I’ve had the chance to see a bunch of high school quarterbacks for a really long time, and up to this point, he has the strongest arm I’ve ever seen from a QB that age.”
Following campus visits throughout the Southeast, Fields committed to Georgia on Oct. 6 and enrolled in Athens last month. He faces serious competition for early playing time, as Bulldogs QB Jake Fromm impressed as a freshman en route to the National Championship Game.
Fields, considered the No. 2 overall prospect in 2018, would’ve given Penn State three top-10 overall signees (along with linebacker Micah Parsons and receiver Justin Shorter). If he lives up to the hype that surrounded him in 2017, we’re talking about an eventual Heisman Trophy contender.
The timing of his de-commitment ultimately worked out in Penn State’s favor, as the staff utilized early-summer camp season to assess prospects and identify Connecticut QB Will Levis as a target. Levis pledged to Franklin on July 15, one day after attending a Nittany Lions camp.
What if … off-field issues didn’t nullify commitments?
Though many college football recruiting discussions center on a program’s ability to persuade prospects into commitments, there are times when these relationships reach a place beyond any coaching staff’s control. Unfortunately, there were a few notable instances during the final stretch of this cycle.
Dorian Hardy, a defensive end from New Jersey, pledged to Penn State in June. However, an in-season fight at Paramus Catholic High School placed his senior season and college plans in jeopardy. The Nittany Lions parted ways with Hardy, who signed with East Carolina last week.
Philadelphia defensive back Isheem Young was one of Penn State’s key midsummer commitments, and starred again as a senior for Imhotep Institute Charter High School. Only hours before his team competed in a state semifinal matchup, Young was arrested in connection with a robbery. That legal process is still playing out, but it quickly became clear the 4-star safety wouldn’t be signing with any program this winter.
We learned the fate of Harrisburg (Pa.) High School receiver Shaquon Anderson-Butts on Signing Day. Despite a Penn State commitment that spanned nearly seven months, academic issues resulted in him heading to junior college.
If each of these players remained in Penn State’s class, which other signings may not have occurred? The Nittany Lions were forced to adapt in each situation.
What if … Micah Parsons avoided social media drama at Ohio State?
Linebacker Micah Parsons is now one month into his Penn State career, but the road that brought him to campus often seemed more like a roller coaster. The 5-star recruit received a Nittany Lions offer as a high school freshman, committed to the program as a sophomore, and then backed off that pledge last April.
He spent last summer traveling to schools such as Alabama, Nebraska and Ohio State. The Buckeyes immediately gained momentum as a perceived favorite to pluck this Harrisburg standout out of Pennsylvania. That sentiment carried into the season, but things took a turn Sept. 9.
While on an official visit to Ohio State, Parsons watched the Buckeyes struggle to keep pace with Oklahoma. Soon after the Ohio State loss, he tweeted support for a potential quarterback change from J.T. Barrett to Dwayne Haskins. It became a hot topic for several days, with former Buckeyes players and Ohio State prospects chiming in with their thoughts.
In another dramatic turn, Ohio State went on to self-report NCAA violations from Parsons’ trip, stemming from “improper contact” on ESPN’s College GameDay set. The Buckeyes effectively ended their recruitment as a result, but Parsons’ father, Terrence, believes that tweet represented a breaking point between both parties.
“After the visit, you know, the next day everything seemed strange because our itinerary said we’re supposed to meet with Urban Meyer at the end of our visit,” Terrence Parsons told Colin Hass-Hill of The Lantern in December. “But that never happened. So when that didn’t happen, I was like, I told his mom, I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t think they want our son no more.’”
Parsons spent the following Saturday back at Beaver Stadium, where he was showered with well wishes from Nittany Lions fans. That seemed to thaw things for Parsons and his relationship with the Penn State community, helping to get the ball rolling toward his eventual return to the class.
His next interaction with Ohio State will occur Sept. 29 when the Buckeyes visit Happy Valley.
What if … Jayson Oweh and Tyreke Smith joined forces?
In another example of Penn State clashing with Ohio State on the 2018 recruiting trail, top-10 defensive ends Tyreke Smith (Cleveland) and Jayson Oweh (Blairstown, N.J.) spent significant time at both universities. They used official visits in Columbus and State College, attended games and offseason recruiting showcases in each town, and maintained consistent communication with coaches, headlined by Franklin and Meyer.
Though Oweh and Smith also considered other schools, their respective processes appeared to boil down to Buckeyes vs. Nittany Lions. This was publicly the case for Oweh, while Smith also listed Alabama, Oregon and USC as finalists.
The parallels of their recruitments were difficult to ignore. Both prospects focused on basketball early in high school before putting on football pads. Not much game film was required to warrant dozens of offers, and this pair rapidly rose to top-100 overall status nationally.
They also elected to announce college choices the same day. Oweh and Smith decided their reveals would take place Jan. 4 during a national television broadcast of the Under Armour All-America Game.
Oweh actually signed his letter of intent with Penn State on Dec. 22, while Smith previously informed Ohio State’s staff of his intentions to join the Buckeyes. When they expressed these plans to a wide audience, both were received with fanfare.
These two will likely be measured against one another in the years ahead since, for a while, it seemed possible their destinations would be reversed. There was also confidence, albeit fleeting for both staffs, that these two could be tempted to team up.
Had that occurred, it would’ve either been outstanding for Penn State’s defensive front or unsettling for Nittany Lions coaches. Both programs landed high-ceiling talents, and the ramifications of these decisions could be felt in this Big Ten rivalry moving forward.