The ebbs and flows of Penn State’s 2018 class serve as a reminder that college football recruiting cycles lack stagnation. Like every program, the Nittany Lions are constantly searching for new talent while attempting to keep committed players on board.
This spring provided a mixed bag for Penn State, featuring seven significant class movements in a seven-week span. Between April 21 – one day prior to the spring game – and last Sunday, the group grew by just one pledge, but those who follow Nittany Lions recruiting understand this stretch involved drastic developments that supersede class quantity.
Before James Franklin, high school recruits and college football analysts fully switch into summer mode, let’s look at the eventful timeline that reconfigured the future roster outlook in State College.
April 21-23: Two enter, two exit Big Ten’s top-ranked class
As members of the current Nittany Lions roster wrapped up an arduous spring camp, Penn State coaches prepared for a substantial annual recruiting showcase. The spring game is a multi-pronged event, providing players with competitive reps, fans with an early glimpse and prospects with a chance to soak in the campus atmosphere.
The April 22 event drew every Nittany Lions pledge to Happy Valley, though the 12-player group had lost a member just one day earlier. In-state offensive tackle Chris Bleich de-committed April 21, six days after he attended Nebraska’s spring game.
Then there were 11.
“I kind of just really enjoyed myself out there and it just made me realize I think I might need to take another look at everything before I throw away four years of my life if I’m not happy at a place,” he told Ryan Baillargeon of PennLive.com.
The Penn State staff promptly responded, picking up a pair of OT pledges shortly before kickoff of the spring game. Virginia standout Nana Asiedu, a top-five prospect at the position in 247Sports’ composite rankings, and 3-star Michigan product Antwan Reed became commit Nos. 12 and 13, celebrating while surrounded by 71,000 fans.
In the aftermath of these commitments, Penn State padded its lead atop composite Big Ten recruiting class rankings, listed No. 2 nationally behind only Miami (Fla.). The program has since slipped slightly to No. 2 in the conference and No. 4 overall.
“We opened some eyes by getting [Asiedu and Reed],” Nittany Lions linebacker pledge Jesse Luketa told Land of 10 afterward. “People are seeing what we have going on in Happy Valley is no joke.”
The following day presented another key recruiting opportunity for Franklin, who attended a Nittany Lions baseball game alongside 4-star New Jersey receiver Jahan Dotson and Harrisburg (Pa.) High School teammates Shaquon Anderson-Butts, another WR target, and 5-star defensive end Micah Parsons.
Parsons, the longest-lasting component of Penn State’s class at that time, is the No. 1 DE in composite rankings. Within hours of an eventful weekend in State College, he declared a “fresh start” for his recruitment.
“I had an amazing [time at the spring game] but just wasn’t 100-percent sure I wanted to [sign with Penn State],” he said.
Parsons, who also traveled to Ohio State’s spring game in April, has since returned to campus and placed Penn State in a top-9 list released in late May.
“I was shocked at first,” 4-star Nittany Lions WR Justin Shorter said one week after the de-commitment. “I can see he still does have interest in Penn State, so there’s a possibility for him to come back to us. But this is a decision for Micah and his family to make, and we need to respect it.”
From the bottom I came, now I run this game. Literally‼️ eat or starve 🏴 pic.twitter.com/tS4vKmrbjP
— BLESSEDMVP (@Micah_parsons23) May 5, 2017
May 6: Another offensive lineman climbs aboard
May, bookended by months featuring shockwave-inducing de-commitments and blue-chip additions, was relatively quiet in terms of transactions. However, Franklin might have found this group’s “gem” when he snagged a pledge from 3-star Illinois OT Bryce Effner.
The 6-foot-5, 275-pound Metea Valley lineman received an offer and visited campus in March. Approximately six weeks later, he took the plunge and joined forces with Asiedu and Reed in offensive line coach Matt Limegrover’s collection of 2018 talent.
“Penn State just has an amazing staff that I felt comfortable around, and why wait when you know you found the right school?” Effner told PennLive.com. “[Their] football program was the best that recruited me, and they went through a lot of the training with me and it was top-notch.”
Considered the nation’s No. 50 offensive tackle and a top-10 overall Illinois recruit in composite rankings, he carries major upside that lends itself to a role on the perimeter or inside at guard. Duke, Minnesota and Syracuse sent offers his way after Penn State offered him.
Effner gave Penn State a total of 13 pledges throughout the remainder of May, and that remains the high mark in terms of volume for this class.
May 19: Justin Fields‘ father mentions ‘second-guess’ mindset
The third week of May saw Harrison (Kennesaw, Ga.) High become a revolving door for Power 5 football coaches. Harrison, the home of 5-star quarterback Justin Fields, welcomed representatives from Auburn, Florida, LSU and Georgia, just to name a few, during the final week of spring camp.
Bulldogs assistants attended the team’s May 19 spring game, as did Penn State staff. Fields produced 4 touchdowns in one half of action, but his recruitment seemed to overshadow even those accomplishments.
Pledged to Penn State since Dec. 1, his offer sheet had surpassed 40 universities by the end of April. Fields told our colleague Chris Kirschner of SEC Country that Florida coaches contacted him up to five times each day, and other programs adopted a similar approach.
“It definitely has my mind spinning with all these schools coming at me,” Fields told SEC Country reporter Jeff Sentell on May 19. “But it is definitely just a great feeling to get this recognition from these schools. I’m actually seeing all this hard work pay off. It is great to see all these colleges come for me. That is really what I always wanted.”
Already increasingly nervous about the finality of Fields’ commitment, Nittany Lions fans likely read deep into what his father, Ivant Fields, added during a discussion with Kirschner.
“I think when you’re a young man, and you have your whole life, a lot of times you just second-guess whether this is the right decision and things of that nature,” Ivant Fields said. “We’re letting him work that out within himself. It’s part of being a man — evolving. He’s a young man on the brink of being a man, so he has to figure that out.”
Things were clearly heating up for the No. 1 dual-threat talent in composite rankings, and a stage was being set for his bomb-drop decision less than three weeks later.
June 6: Justin Fields de-commits after Elite 11 finals
Fields, who surged to No. 6 overall in composite rankings as May neared a conclusion, traveled to Los Angeles the first weekend of June. He competed in Elite 11 finals, an annual showcase of 25 top rising-senior quarterbacks that previously featured Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson and Jameis Winston.
The 6-foot-3, 221-pound passer dazzled event coaches June 2-4, earning inclusion as one of 12 inductees to the Elite 11 fraternity. His journey on that path will continue June 28-July 3 at The Opening.
“Justin has everything you want in a quarterback,” veteran Elite 11 coach 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.”
Combine that pedigree with the threat he presents as a rusher, and it’s clear Fields is a special prospect. Penn State followers barely had time to rejoice his West Coast success; he backed off a six-month verbal pledge on June 6.
“This is probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Fields wrote on Twitter. “My decision to reopen my recruitment is in no way a reflection of any deficiencies of PSU, its coaches, players or fans.”
As SEC Country colleague Zack Abolverdi documented Tuesday, the coveted quarterback has hit the ground running since that decision. Auburn, Florida State and Georgia welcomed him to campus this week, while Florida is in line for a visit next week.
It will be Fields’ second trip to Gainesville this spring, and the Gators lead the 247Sports Crystal Ball with 50 percent of experts’ predictions.
His departure from the Penn State class has encouraged Franklin & Co. to search elsewhere for options at the position.
Fast-rising Kansas prospect Jace Ruder was offered last weekend. The former Tulsa commit has seen his recruitment intensify this spring and he, too, is on a multi-university tour this week.
Ruder is expected to spend time at Florida State, Georgia and North Carolina. There’s a chance he could commit somewhere before ever setting foot in State College.
North Carolina State commit Devin Leary and Virginia Tech pledge Quincy Patterson – who were both in Franklin’s office last July when the Nittany Lions offered Fields – are other recruits to monitor moving forward.
Patterson, clearly aware of speculation regarding Penn State, declared himself “100 percent committed” to the Hokies last Wednesday. Leary, a 4-star recruit whose older brother graduated from Penn State, told Land of 10 last week that an offer from the Nittany Lions “would be huge”.
Meanwhile, Fields continues to mention Penn State as a possible landing spot. The likelihood of that seems minuscule, but he might be tempted to circle back for a follow-up with Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead following continued exploration of other options.
“The reason I de-committed is because I wanted to make sure Penn State was the fit for me,” Fields told Adam Gorney of Rivals.com. “I knew that when I committed, but this is my second go-around to make sure they are the best fit for me.”
June 11: 4-star DE Dorian Hardy commits on campus
Still reeling from the loss of Fields, Penn State gained momentum Sunday in the form of a commitment from 4-star New Jersey DE Dorian Hardy. The 6-foot-5, 241-pound Paramus Catholic High prospect already had planned to reveal this decision when he departed for State College on Saturday.
After staying on campus overnight, he was joined by his mother and sisters in Franklin’s office on Sunday morning. Surrounded by family and several members of the Nittany Lions staff, Hardy boosted Penn State’s class back to 13 pledges by issuing a verbal commitment.
— Sharon Hardy (@Hardy39Hardy) June 11, 2017
His mother, Sharon Hardy, explained it was simply a case of Penn State pushing past the other 20-plus schools on her son’s offer list.
“There was something we liked about every school, but they also had cons, too,” she said. “Even up to this past weekend, we went back and forth trying to find something we didn’t like about Penn State. We never found it.”
Now approaching another busy weekend on campus – a third “Elite Camp” occurs Friday evening, followed by the “Big Man Showcase” and “Lion Strong” 7-on-7 action Saturday – there isn’t much time for the dust to settle in State College.
This seven-week span featured the farewell of two 5-stars, though neither has entirely ruled out the Nittany Lions. However, it also included monumental pickups in the trenches, headlined by Hardy and Asiedu.
The 2018 Penn State class currently consists of 13 commits, just as it did during the afternoon of April 22. It’s structure, however, has shifted immensely, and these alterations should have long-lasting impacts on the program.