Given the success on the field for Penn State in 2016 and the prowess on the recruiting trail James Franklin and his staff have shown, something special is in play for the 2018 recruiting class. Like, the best recruiting class in modern Penn State history kind of special.
As Land of 10’s Tyler Donohue noted, there are seven months to National Signing Day. Recruiting rankings this far from the finish line are even less likely to be correct than way-too-early preseason top 25 polls.
That said, the Nittany Lions do have about half of a class committed, and they have put in much of the groundwork needed to finish this recruiting cycle strong. There have been two major defections, 5-star quarterback Justin Fields and 5-star defensive end/running back/whatever his team needs him to do Micah Parsons.
Those are two of the top five players in the nation, and Fields might be pushing for the No. 1 spot after winning MVP honors at The Opening. In a normal year, missing out on two phenoms like that would be a crucial blow for at least 55 of the 65 Power 5 schools.
There still is time for either of them to reconsider and circle back to Penn State. Let’s just say for now that doesn’t happen. Does that mean this Penn State class is doomed to be really good, but miss out on that “special” tag?
Cultivating an elite recruiting class means depth, and a lot of the blue-chip variety. SBNation’s Bud Elliott has written at length about the blue-chip ratio needed to win national championships. Teams that have at least 50 percent of the roster filled with former 4- and 5-star recruits win championships. Teams that don’t, well, don’t.
Here’s Penn State’s progression: 21 percent in 2014, 28 percent in 2015 and 34 percent in 2016. That’s certainly trending in the right direction, and it’s going to look better when Elliott writes about the 2017 group after the Nittany Lions added another strong class in February.
The 2017 class had 11 blue-chip prospects, though 4-star defensive lineman Damion Barber hasn’t enrolled yet. Penn State’s two best recruiting classes in the 247Sports composite era — that’s since 2005, which we’ll consider the modern recruiting era — came in 2006, which was ranked eighth in the country, and 2010, which was 10th.
The 2010 class didn’t feature any of the top 64 players, but it did have 13 players ranked as 4-star prospects. In 2006, Penn State landed one 5-star prospect, two top-50 players and a total of 8 blue-chip recruits.
Even if Fields and Parsons end up elsewhere, Penn State has the chance to finish with the best collection of top-end talent in modern program history. Running back Ricky Slade and wide receiver Justin Shorter are two of the top 50 players in the country. Both were standouts at The Opening and could end up as 5-star prospects.
Penn State has signed six 5-star players since 2005, and only once had two in the same class (Derrick Williams and Justin King in 2005). The most recent was Miles Sanders in 2015.
That remains a strong start at the top. Only nine programs signed two or more 5-star players in 2017.
Again, the biggest key will be building quality depth. Of those nine teams that signed multiple 5-star prospects, three of them ended up with 10 blue-chip players or less. The other six? They all had at least 12, and were the top six classes in the cycle.
Penn State currently has 13 players committed for 2018, and seven are 4-star prospects. If the Nittany Lions finish with 13 blue-chip recruits and two top-50 players, it will be Penn State’s best haul in the modern era. That also likely would land the Nittany Lions in the top seven of the final rankings.
There will be plenty of focus on that final ranking. Getting to 13 or 14 blue-chip signees is more important.
How can Franklin and his staff get there without Fields or Parsons?
As Donohue wrote yesterday, Penn State is among the top contenders for three blue-chip wideouts: Jahan Dotson, Daniel George and Solomon Enis. The Nittany Lions have signed only four wide receivers in the past two cycles, so taking four in one year would not be that crazy.
Getting four blue-chip receivers in one cycle would be a remarkable achievement. That also might not be possible. Penn State definitely needs at least one of these three players, but let’s say they end up with two.
It looks as if there are three strong candidates here as well. Tyler Friday is the No. 3 defensive tackle in the nation. He’d surpass Jared Odrick (No. 6 in 2006) as the highest-rated player at the position for Penn State in the modern era, but landing the New Jersey product seems far from certain.
P.J. Mustipher and Aeneas Hawkins also are 4-star defensive tackles who have Penn State very much in the mix. The Nittany Lions almost certainly would take two of them, but just getting one to pair with blue-chip 2017 tackle Fred Hansard at some point in the future would be a big deal.
There are two big offensive line targets still uncommitted: Rasheed Walker and Fredrick Scruggs. Penn State has three offensive linemen committed at this point, but teams are always looking for four or even five players to help build depth along the line.
If the Nittany Lions can land one of them to pair with 4-star commit Nana Asiedu, that’s a success.
The Nittany Lions have two defensive backs committed, and they probably would like to add at least two — and maybe three — more. This is a position where programs will almost always take one more recruit than planned if it means adding another blue-chip athlete.
There are two 4-star Pennsylvania safeties out there: Philadelphia’s Isheem Young and Pittsburgh’s Kwantel Raines. Let’s call that Group A.
There also is a collection of defensive backs from outside the Keystone State that Penn State is very much interested in. Let’s call this Group B. It includes top-100 prospects Houston Griffith and Jalen Green, and 4-star Florida cornerback Jordan Miner.
If Penn State lands one player from Group A and one player from Group B, this will be a successful recruiting class for defensive backs.
If Penn State signs two wide receivers, one defensive tackle, one offensive lineman and two defensive backs from the names listed above, and if all seven current blue-chip commits stick (both as 4-star prospects and Penn State signees), that would get Penn State to 13.
There are other possibilities to get there, or push past 13. Two current commits, linebacker Jesse Luketa and offensive lineman Antwan Reed, are just outside 4-star status. Last year there were 329 players with 4- or 5-star ratings when the class was finished. Luketa is currently No. 336 and Reed is No. 349, with plenty of time to slide up the rankings.
Penn State also could end up replacing Fields with a 4-star quarterback. Several players have been suggested, but most of them are committed elsewhere. Flipping a quarterback late in the process is never easy, but it happens.
If Penn State has another great season in 2017, there could be blue-chip prospects who have committed elsewhere or don’t have the Nittany Lions among their top contenders right now who could change their minds.
Hansard flipped from Florida late in the process last year. Penn State lost a 4-star linebacker, Dylan Rivers, less than two weeks before signing day but replaced him another, Ellis Brooks.
It’s still possible that Fields, or more likely Parsons, ultimately decides to pick Penn State, but the odds of a player de-committing and then circling back are never great. That doesn’t mean this Penn State recruiting class can’t be deep and talented without either.
If Franklin and his staff keep collecting 4-star prospects, it can be the best class in modern Penn State recruiting history and one of the best in program history, regardless of era.