Jayson Oweh/Twitter
Penn State signee Jayson Oweh needed only two seasons of high school football to become a top-100 overall prospect.

Penn State recruiting mailbag: Plenty of upside among Nittany Lions signees, high expectations for 2019 class

Tyler Donohue

Have Penn State football recruiting questions? We have answers. Join us every Thursday for the Land of 10 Penn State recruiting mailbag to discuss Nittany Lions recruiting. This week, we discuss 2018 signees who could make an immediate impact and remaining targets beyond the early signing period.

Penn State recruiting efforts are relentless, so we always have plenty to address here. Let’s get started.

The 2018 recruiting cycle was an immense success for Penn State. James Franklin, despite dealing with staff changes, held on to key pledges late and added four uncommitted blue-chip prospects during the early signing period (Dec. 20-22) and traditional National Signing Day (Wednesday).

The Nittany Lions landed 5-star do-it-all phenom Micah Parsons on Dec. 20, beating out programs such as College Football Playoff participants Alabama, Georgia and Oklahoma. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound in-state standout from Harrisburg High School, earned U.S. Army All-American Bowl Defensive Player of the Year honors and was probably the most impressive senior running back in Pennsylvania.

His collegiate journey begins at middle linebacker, and he’s already on campus competing for an opportunity to replace Penn State captain Jason Cabinda. Some call him a “freak.” Others go with “monster.” On Wednesday afternoon, shortly after wrapping up the highest-ranked recruiting class in Penn State history, Franklin simply said Parsons “is what we thought.”

Aside from Parsons, No. 1 overall receiver recruit Justin Shorter probably has created the most buzz on a national level. It’s no wonder Shannon paired these two together in his question, as both players are listed as top-10 overall prospects in composite rankings. They are the first such Nittany Lions signees since receiver Derrick Williams (No. 4 overall) joined the program in 2005.

Shorter, a 6-4, 220-pound playmaker from South Brunswick (N.J.) High School, climbed the rankings in a huge way last offseason. After dominating on the camp circuit, including an eye-opening performance last summer at Nike’s world headquarters during The Opening, he received a bump to 5-star status.

Continued success as a senior, including an impressive performance in South Brunswick’s state championship victory, helped elevate Shorter to the top spot among his peers. He joins Parsons and all-purpose back Ricky Slade as Penn State signees labeled No. 1 talents at their respective positions.

Beyond these obvious class headliners, Shannon wants to know which incoming Penn State freshman presents the highest upside. To me, that means legitimate potential for long-term growth that results in collegiate stardom and eventual widespread interest from NFL scouts.

The beauty of this class for Nittany Lions fans is we’re not lacking for options. Penn State signed 12 athletes listed as top-10 talents at their respective position, and 15 total blue-chip recruits (another program record).

For the sake of this conversation, let’s pick one player from each side of the ball.

On defense, Jayson Oweh first comes to mind. He is 6-5, 238 pounds with rare athleticism, limited experience and a true hunger to be great.

Oweh focused on basketball early in his high school career before giving football a shot in 2016. The results were swift, as he earned 20 scholarship offers by the end of his junior year.

By the end of his senior season, which featured 13 sacks in fewer than five full games for Blair Academy (N.J.), his offer list featured Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Penn State. He picked the Nittany Lions over the Buckeyes in a two-team showdown.

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Jayson Oweh has made major strides at defensive end in a short period of time. (David Wilson/DieHards)

An athlete of Oweh’s ability could glide by on pure athleticism (he registered a 4.46-second 40-yard dash and 4.29-second agility shuttle July 14 during a Penn State camp) but instead it’s apparent this is a player focused on maximizing ability. Expect him to be a sponge when it comes to soaking up knowledge from Nittany Lions defensive line coach Sean Spencer.

“His upside is just tremendous,” Blair Academy coach Jim Saylor told Land of 10 in September. “He’s in a program where we get 10 hours of practice per week, and he has to practice offense and defense. When he gets to a college program and has three hours each day just to focus on defensive end, it’s going to be special. He’s like a flower that hasn’t even bloomed yet.”

It might take a year or two for the total package to come together, but I foresee Oweh outperforming several of the defensive ends listed ahead of him in composite rankings.

Zack Kuntz is who we’ll turn attention toward on offense. The 6-7 tight end was among America’s most impressive receiving threats during his prep career at Camp Hill (Pa.) High School, collecting nearly 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns.

There’s so much to be excited about when you assess Kuntz and his ceiling in the sport. His coordination at this height is extremely rare to see on a football field, and in that regard he draws a comparison to top overall 2017 tight end Colby Parkinson, who made an immediate impact at Stanford.

Kuntz isn’t just a big guy who can move well. He is true force with the football in his hands, and you can draw a direct correlation to his 2017 state championship in the 110-meter hurdles.

Kuntz arrived on campus in January as an early enrollee and, based on comments from Franklin, he sounds physically ahead of the curve compared to what the coaching staff anticipated. That’s positive news for his quest to help replace record-setting Nittany Lions tight end Mike Gesicki.

Let’s quickly address what lies ahead for Penn State on the 2019 recruiting trail…

We received plenty of inquiries about the 2019 recruiting cycle in January, especially since the vast majority of 2018 class efforts were completed before Christmas, and now the subject truly takes center stage after Signing Day.

Things have heated up in recent weeks. The Nittany Lions identified dozens of new targets through the first half of winter and hosted a junior day event on campus Feb. 3.

At this point, Penn State carries two commitments in its 2019 class: New Jersey quarterback Taquan Roberson and local State College cornerback Keaton Ellis. That’s noticeably behind the pace of 2018 class development, but this early in the process it’s not a concern.

Kevin brings up the point of a reduced number of “big prospects” in the Northeast. I’m not quite ready to agree with this sentiment, especially when you consider Penn State found its quarterback in New Jersey, is in good shape with 5-star Garden State defensive tackle Antonio Alfano and is the favorite for elite Massachusetts safety Lewis Cine, just to name a few examples.

Is there a dropoff from the 2018 cycle? Perhaps, but let’s get through the spring camp circuit before fully buying into that notion.

Kevin’s comment, however, does ring true when applied to Pennsylvania.

The Nittany Lions have offered only two high school juniors on their home turf: Ellis and Harrisburg linebacker Andre White. In fact, 2020 receiver Julian Fleming (Catawissa, Pa.) landed a Nittany Lions offer last June before any 2019 prospect residing in Pennsylvania.

Franklin addressed the situation Wednesday.

“If you look, it hasn’t been as many offers going out in our state, not just from Penn State but just from around the country,” he said. “There’s going to be years where the state is really strong, and you’re going to be able to sign 12, 15 players from a state, and there’s going to be years where you sign three or four or five. So you have to be able to broaden your nets so that you’re able to handle that. You’re able to overcome what may be a down year in the state or a down year in the region.”

The “broaden your nets” comment rings especially true following a final week of January in which Penn State offered more than 10 Florida prospects. Following back-to-back top-10 finishes, a recent Big Ten title and the success of Saquon Barkley, now is the time to strike on a nationwide recruiting push.

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Noah Cain, a 5-star running back who attends IMG Academy in Florida, plans to visit Happy Valley this spring. (Sam Spiegelman/SEC Country)

I’ve spoken with top-100 prospects in the 2019 class from locations such as Dallas, South Florida, Louisiana and St. Louis who’ve expressed serious interest in Penn State. The anticipation is we’ll see that reflected in the quality of campus visitors during spring practice and early summer camps.

Penn State’s trajectory on the recruiting trail appears to be as strong as any program in the country, and expectations should continue to rise as a result.

Have a question about Penn State recruiting? Tweet us @Landof10PSU and we’ll try to answer it in a future mailbag. Check to see if your issue already was addressed by reading previous Penn State recruiting mailbags here.