Penn State is now recruiting at a level that rivals just about any elite college football program in the country. But don’t forget — Nittany Lions coach James Franklin assembled a Big Ten champion and College Football Playoff contender by using plenty of 3-star prospects as building blocks.
Several players who’ve become part of the fabric of the Franklin era weren’t exactly considered potential program-changers coming out of high school. Let’s face it — fans are more enamored with blue-chip recruits (deemed 5- or 4-star talents) than ever. Fewer than 400 athletes received that designation in 2018 composite recruit rankings, which are produced by 247Sports based on median industry ratings.
As the old adage goes, hindsight is 20/20. It’s no surprise everyone in the room sounds a lot smarter talking about college football prospects five years after they’ve signed with a college.
Still, NFL draft results annually solidify the fact that, more often than not, recruit ratings get it right. With countless high school seniors attempting to make a leap to college football each recruiting cycle, there’s a 100-percent chance many players will either surpass their rating, fail to match expectations or go unnoticed completely.
I’ve always encouraged young athletes to value scholarship offers far more than the number of stars assigned to them. If Franklin, Urban Meyer or Nick Saban want you on their roster, the rest really doesn’t matter much aside from how it impacts an ego.
With that said, you’ve likely noticed I reference composite star ratings and positional rankings on a daily basis. It may not be a perfect system, but it’s the best method we have of quantifying how players measure up against their peers nationwide.
Penn State signed its two highest-rated recruits since 2005 — linebacker Micah Parsons and receiver Justin Shorter — last winter, landing 15 top-350 overall prospects in the 2018 class. Nittany Lions followers may quickly become spoiled by this level of National Signing Day success, but let’s press pause and review a few key players who emerged from more humble high school backgrounds.
QB Trace McSorley
Composite Ranking: No. 15 dual-threat quarterback; No. 571 overall
Let’s start with the most obvious candidate to land on this list. Trace McSorley, approaching his third season as a Penn State starter and already in possession of several program passing records, had a tough task convincing some staffs he had the makings of a Power 5 football quarterback.
It’s well documented that Franklin’s staff at Vanderbilt initially viewed McSorley as a safety. That outlook changed and the Commodores accepted his commitment at quarterback, eventually leading him to follow those coaches to State College.
McSorley led Briar Woods (Ashburn, Va.) High School to four state championship games, winning three of them and wrapping up his prep career with a 55-5 record and more than 12,000 total yards. As the Nittany Lions quarterback, he’s had at least 1 touchdown toss in 28 straight contests — including 4 in the 2016 Big Ten Championship Game — and is the only player in Penn State history to collect more than 50 scores through the air (59).
DE Shareef Miller
Composite Ranking: No. 27 strongside defensive end; No. 525 overall
Shareef Miller enjoyed a standout 2017 spring camp, setting the stage for his breakout sophomore campaign. He collected 11 tackles for loss and 5 sacks last season, earning third-team All-Big Ten honors from the media.
Miller, viewed as a leader in Penn State’s defensive line rotation, received a preseason second-team all-conference nod from Athlon Sports. His other Big Ten offers coming out of George Washington (Philadelphia) High School were Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State, Nebraska and Rutgers, according to 247Sports.
LB Jason Cabinda
Composite Ranking: No. 67 athlete; No. 853 overall
Jason Cabinda committed to Syracuse during the summer prior to his senior season at Hunterdon Central (Flemington, N.J.) High School, but former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien shook things up by extending an offer in September 2013.
“Penn State’s biggest concern with me was that they didn’t have any film on me playing linebacker,” Cabinda told NJ.com’s Todderick Hunt that fall. “Last year, I was more of a stand-up D-end kind of guy, and they needed to see me as a legit stand-up guy off the line of scrimmage.”
Cabinda also excelled as a running back, rushing for 1,258 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior en route to a state championship. He started 36 games at linebacker with the Nittany Lions, emerged as a heart-and-soul presence in the locker room, and signed with the Oakland Raiders in April.
DT Robert Windsor
Composite Ranking: No. 66 defensive tackle; 1,014 overall
Robert Windsor has appeared in all 27 Penn State games since redshirting as a freshman in 2015. He tallied 42 tackles, including 4 for loss, and 3 sacks during his first two collegiate campaigns.
Following the departure of two starting defensive tackles, the Nittany Lions will likely turn to Windsor for an expanded role this season. Among the seven Power 5 offers he received while at Fond Du Lac (Wisc.) High School, five came from Big Ten schools (Illinois, Maryland, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin).
Windsor was a first-team all-state selection as a high school senior after totaling 56 tackles — 13 for loss — and 5.5 sacks.
CB Christian Campbell
Composite Ranking: No. 95 safety; No. 1,108 overall
A late addition to Franklin’s first recruiting class with Penn State, Christian Campbell seriously considered Indiana and Minnesota before committing to the Nittany Lions two days before Signing Day. He previously caught the attention of staff members when they were at Vanderbilt, and established rapport that helped seal the deal.
Campbell, the lowest-rated recruit we reference on this list, appeared in 10 games as a freshman and eventually worked his way into a starting role at cornerback. He started every game in 2017, leading the team with 12 pass breakups, and was selected by the Arizona Cardinals in Round 6 of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Campbell was an all-city selection at Central (Phenix City, Ala.) High School. He collected 139 tackles and 5 interceptions as a prep upperclassman.
DE Shaka Toney
Composite Ranking: No. 47 weakside defensive end; No. 838 overall
It’s too early to realistically and comprehensively assess the college careers of 2016 and 2017 Penn State signees, especially since young players aren’t reaching the field with the frequency seen early in Franklin’s tenure. Tackle Will Fries and defensive tackle Antonio Shelton are 3-star 2016 prospects who ultimately may make a case for inclusion here, but let’s shine a spotlight on Shaka Toney.
Aside from Penn State, Toney collected five other Power 5 offers while at Imhotep Institute (Philadelphia), according to 247Sports: Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Vanderbilt. He helped lead Imhotep to a state championship in 2015, earning all-state honors after a 97-tackle, 21-sack season.
After redshirting as a freshman in 2016, Toney again flashed his ability to disrupt offensive backfields last season. He recorded 4 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in a rotational role, including a sack of Michigan quarterback John O’Korn that provided a punctuation mark to Penn State’s 42-13 victory over the Wolverines.
RB Saquon Barkley
Composite Ranking: No. 13 running back; No. 119 overall
I know, I know — I’m bringing a blue-chip prospect into the conversation. This may seem unfair on the surface, but when assessing Saquon Barkley’s college career, it’s clear anything less than a 5-star rating wouldn’t have set the bar high enough (reminder: hindsight is 20/20).
The Whitehall (Pa.) High School product produced fewer than 300 rushing yards as a prep underclassman and committed to Rutgers in September 2013, calling an eventual conference foe his “dream school”. He erupted as a need-to-know playmaker that fall and rushed for 3,362 yards and 58 touchdowns during his final two high school seasons.
The Bill O’Brien regime offered Barkley a scholarship midway through his junior season, and Franklin managed to flip him from the Rutgers pledge in February 2014. His college career will be remembered as a highlight reel (you can watch one below). Barkley scored more total touchdowns (53) than any player in Penn State history and needed only three seasons to do it.
He was selected second overall by the New York Giants in the 2018 NFL Draft and has become one of the sport’s most recognizable players. By no means was Barkley under the radar as a recruit but, in retrospect, 4-star status and a spot outside top-100 rankings don’t do him justice.