To have sustained success in college football, you’ve got to recruit like a champion. Whether you’ve got a nationally-ranked class or you’re pulling up the rear in your own conference, every class has hits and misses that ultimately define it.
Who have been the biggest surprises – good and bad – in your favorite school’s recent classes? We continue our recruiting series with Penn State, and we’ll keep looking at one a team a day. (Saturday is Nebraska.)
Related: Ohio State Class of ’14 Hits & Misses:
Related: Michigan Class of ’14 Hits & Misses
Related: Wisconsin Class of ’14 Hits & Misses
Related: Iowa Class of ’14 Hits & Misses
When James Franklin took the job as Penn State’s head coach one month prior to signing day in 2014, his reputation as a recruiter was a major factor in the decision to bring him to Happy Valley. Unfortunately for the enigmatic Franklin, he walked into a fairly difficult situation after Bill O’Brien walked out to take over as the head coach with the NFL’s Houston Texans.
In the short time that Franklin had before signing day, he was tasked with two responsibilities: Retain the talent already committed and find some new prospects to bring into the mix. For the most part, he did just that.
The Nittany Lions finished with the country’s 24th-best recruiting class – the third-ranked class in the Big Ten – and were able to reel in five different 4-star talents and 20 3-star prospects that hailed from all over the country. In total, Penn State nabbed commitments from 14 different states in 2014.
Here are three players who have played well in Happy Valley, and three others who have failed to reach stardom status:
Who has stood out
CHRIS GODWIN, wide receiver: In an offense that struggled to find consistency in 2015, the 4-star prospect from Delaware was a go-to player for the Nittany Lions all season long. He finished the year with 1,101 receiving yards and 69 receptions, backing up a solid freshman campaign where he accumulated 338 yards on 26 catches.
The country’s 25th-ranked receiver in 2014, Godwin has outperformed his expectations as a big-time player from the small town of Middletown, Delaware.
JUSTIN CABINDA, linebacker: The 33rd-ranked player in New Jersey in 2014, Cabinda has turned into a major contributor for the Nittany Lions and done so faster than most would have expected. When he arrived from Hunterdon Central (Flemington, N.J.) as a 6-foot-1, 220-pound athlete, Cabinda wasn’t the player most would have assumed would become a star but he’s done just that.
As a freshman he finished with 17 tackles and was an honorable mention selection to the Big Ten all-freshman team. His sophomore season is when things really took off. Cabinda led Penn State with 100 tackles and also recorded 3.5 sacks on his way to honorable mention All-Big Ten.
GRANT HALEY, defensive back: Haley is another 3-star prospect that has turned out to be a sooner-than-expected key player in Happy Valley. As a sophomore in 2015, Haley started 11 games for Penn State and proved to be a valuable asset on defense and special teams, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from the media. He broke up seven passes and recorded 42 tackles, finishing ninth on the roster in that department.
His 32 kick returns as a freshman were a school record and his 659 return yards in 2014 are good for the second best total in Nittany Lions history. As the nation’s 46th-ranked cornerback out of the Lovett School in Atlanta, Haley has definitely stepped up his game to become an important player in Penn State’s program.
Who hasn’t lived up to the hype
MIKE GESICKI, tight end: Landing Gesicki, the country’s sixth-ranked tight end in 2014, was a major win for the Nittany Lions. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound 4-star prospect from Manahawkin, N.J., picked Penn State over Ohio State in a hotly contested recruitment and they fought off the Buckeyes until signing day to keep him. However, Gesicki has not yet reached the results on the field that many were expecting, especially when compared to the success that his predecessor, Jesse James, was able to achieve.
In his two years at Penn State, Gesicki has only 24 receptions in 23 games and has scored just one touchdown, a disappointing total for a player that should be a tough matchup for anyone, especially in the red zone. He started eight games as a sophomore and will need to step up as a leader this fall for the Lions.
SAEED BLACKNALL, wide receiver: The highest-ranked player in the Penn State 2014 class has not yet performed at the level his rankings would suggest. The country’s 21st-ranked wide receiver is a physical mismatch at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, yet he has not turned his many skills into productivity. As a sophomore, Blacknall started three games and although he finished third on the team in receiving yards (248), he recorded only eight catches in 13 games.
As the Lions hope to find offensive consistency this fall, Blacknall will need to provide not just deep-threat potential but also become a more reliable, every-down wide receiver.
MICHAEL O’CONNOR, quarterback: When he committed to Penn State out of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., O’Conner – an Under-Armour All-American – did so with the thought of being “The Man” in Happy Valley behind Christian Hackenberg. Unfortunately for Penn State fans and for the Canadian born O’Connor, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound gunslinger never could quite “hack it” for the Nittany Lions.
After one season at Penn State, the country’s 14th-ranked quarterback prospect in 2014 announced that he’d be leaving the program and heading home – to Canada – and transferred to the University of British Columbia. In his first year at UBC, O’Connor flashed big-time, throwing for 3,959 yards and 23 touchdowns, giving a glimpse into what he may have been able to do were he given a shot at Penn State.