Each month until National Signing Day, I’ll project the 2018 Penn State recruiting class on both sides of the ball. The Nittany Lions haven’t added a commitment since our August edition, though the outlook has shifted a bit due to developments.
We focused on the offensive group Wednesday, examining the pieces in place and additions that may lie ahead. Now, let’s turn attention toward the defensive class, which presently features six blue-chip prospects and appears primed to add more.
Penn State coach James Franklin said Wednesday the Nittany Lions are still pursuing “a handful of guys” in the 2018 recruiting cycle, and it’s a safe assumption at least a few of those final targets are found on defense. With those players in mind, and working off an impressive foundation of established pledges, here’s how I envision the final defensive class in February, as of Sept. 14.
Defensive tackle (3): 3-star Judge Culpepper (Tampa, Fla.), 4-star Aeneas Hawkins (Cincinnati), 4-star PJ Mustipher (Owings Mills, Md.)
Perhaps no position benefited more greatly than defensive tackle during Penn State’s tremendous mid-summer recruiting surge. Among 10 commitments the Nittany Lions landed between July 6 and Aug. 10, three are expected to fill interior roles for defensive line coach Sean Spencer.
Judge Culpepper, the son of former Florida Gators and NFL defensive lineman Brad Culpepper, warrants attention at defensive end. His versatility is showcased often across the defensive front at Plant High School, where he’s tallied 81 tackles — 34 for loss — and 10 sacks since 2016, per MaxPreps.
PJ Mustipher, a 6-foot-5, 290-pound force, is off to a dominant start in 2017. He recorded 10 tackles — 4 for loss — and 2 sacks in his senior-season opener, according to Sean Fitz of 247Sports. He provides a consistent interior pass rush, further evidenced by 15 sacks as a junior.
Aeneas Hawkins is the most recent Penn State pledge, joining the group Aug. 10 just three days after Mustipher. The son of former NFL defensive back Artrell Hawkins, he provides exciting potential as a prototypical three-technique.
Defensive end (2): 4-star Dorian Hardy (Paramus, N.J.), 4-star DE Tyreke Smith (Cleveland)
The Nittany Lions have enjoyed success targeting top prospects in New Jersey, and Dorian Hardy become the latest Garden State product to issue a Penn State pledge June 11. Hardy, a 6-5, 241-pound defender, became a nationwide recruit early in his high school career, and there’s a lot to like about what he can provide off the edge with continued strength training.
This position is the most compelling position for Penn State during the remaining months of the 2018 recruiting cycle. Focus centers on a trio of elite talents: in-state standout Micah Parsons, Jayson Oweh of New Jersey and Tyreke Smith of Ohio.
Parsons, a 5-star and top-5 overall prospect, previously spent 14 months pledged to Penn State prior to an April 23 de-commitment. Oweh and Smith both enjoyed fast rises on the recruiting trail during the past year, and both seem capable of climbing into 5-star territory with strong senior seasons.
The three players have plans to visit Happy Valley at least once this season. Parsons will be on campus Saturday for Penn State’s game against Georgia State, Oweh will use an official visit Nov. 18, and Smith plans to attend the Oct. 21 “White Out” matchup with Michigan.
Smith will also spend an official visit weekend in State College after the regular season, according to Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports. Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon and USC are his other finalists, but I like where the Nittany Lions stand with this situation.
Oweh is focused on Ohio State and Penn State, while Notre Dame is the No. 3 option. He and Parsons both traveled to Columbus last weekend. Parsons also plans to spend time at Alabama and Nebraska this season.
My outlook may fluctuate here as things progress, and perhaps I’ll place someone else in this slot next month. For now, it’s Smith, with Oweh and Parsons projected to land elsewhere in the Big Ten.
Linebacker (3): 4-star Jesse Luketa (Ottawa, Ontario), 3-star Charlie Katshir(Mechanicsburg, Pa.), 3-star Nick Tarburton (Perkasie, Pa.)
This group has been a constant for the class since February and nothing indicates things will change. Penn State expressed interest in other linebackers earlier in the year, but ultimately those recruitments seemed to cool off, as offered athletes such as Brian Asamoah and Jack Lamb landed elsewhere.
Jesse Luketa is the lone blue-chip recruit of this trio, according to 247Sports 2018 composite rankings, though Nick Tarburton previously carried a 4-star label and a healthy Charlie Katshir looks the part through early stages of his senior season.
Size really stands out with Luketa (6-3, 238 pounds) and Tarburton (6-4, 242). During assessment of Tarburton’s 2016 game film, there were glimpses to suggest he could make a successful and seamless transition to defensive end in college.
Katshir (6-3, 198) is among Pennsylvania’s premier athletes on the football field, also excelling as a rusher and receiver on offense.
Cornerback (2): 3-star Trent Gordon (Manvel, Texas), 4-star Jordan Miner (Zephyrhills, Fla.)
This duo represents Penn State’s expanded reach, as Franklin attempts to establish the Nittany Lions’ brand in various recruiting regions.
Gordon committed in March and, although other Power 5 programs have identified him as a target since then, he’s remained steadfast in his decision while returning to campus for July 15 Lasch Bash festivities. He is a complete cornerback recruit, matching impressive pass coverage skills with persistence against the run, resulting in 81 tackles last season.
Miner is another balanced player in the defensive secondary, and he also presents promise as a special teams returner. The 6-1, 183-pound prospect intercepted passes in each of the first two games of his senior campaign, while also contributing as a receiver and running back.
Safety (2): 3-star Isaiah Humphries (Sachse, Texas), 4-star Isheem Young (Philadelphia)
Isaiah Humphries follows the footsteps of his father, former Nittany Lions defensive back Leonard Humphries, to Happy Valley. He committed last New Year’s Eve, and makes an impact across the defense for a premier Lone Star State program. His production includes 61 tackles and 7 interceptions since 2016, according to MaxPreps.
Closer to campus, Philadelphia product Isheem Young helped lead Imhotep Charter to consecutive state championship game appearances in 2015 and 2016. He considered offers from Clemson, Maryland, Ohio State and West Virginia before pledging to Penn State on July 18.
Young is an intimidating presence at the back end of a defensive attack, routinely dishing out devastating hits that help set an overall tone during the course of a contest.
Uncommitted 4-star Pittsburgh area athlete Kwantel Raines continues to express interest in Penn State, listing the Nittany Lions among his finalists. The 6-3 talent is also considering Florida, Pitt and West Virginia, and it’s unclear whether there will be room for another defensive back in this class.
Kicker (1): 3-star Jake Pinegar (Ankeny, Iowa)
We’re including kicker Jake Pinegar in this section of our Penn State class projection. He’s displayed range from beyond 50 yards so far this season, and consistent success on special teams routinely serves as a separating factor between title contenders and also-rans.
Pinegar is more than a guy with a strong leg. He stars at defensive back and receiver for Centennial High, which is something to keep in mind when considering the occasional trick play in collegiate action.
— Dan Holm (@danmholm) August 26, 2017