Each month, Penn State recruiting analyst Tyler Donohue will take a look at the Nittany Lions’ to-do list here on Land of 10. This outlook focuses on three priority concerns for the program’s recruiting efforts in the weeks ahead. We start with August.
Don’t expect Penn State to duplicate an incredibly successful July on the recruiting trail. Nittany Lions coach James Franklin just finished a month in which he landed seven verbal commitments in the 2018 class, including a quarterback and three 4-star prospects. That’s a stretch most college football programs will fail to match this cycle.
Despite the arrival of preseason training camp, attention remains on recruiting throughout August. There is plenty to check off the list, but here’s how I would prioritize the top three items on Penn State’s agenda this month.
1. Start assembling pieces for a strong 2019 class
The Nittany Lions entered the 2016 season carrying commitments from four high school juniors: offensive tackle Chris Bleich, tight end Pat Freiermuth, defensive end Micah Parsons and receiver Justin Shorter. Bleich and Parsons backed off their verbal pledges on April 21 and 23, respectively, while Freiermuth and Shorter are still foundational blue-chip members of a 2018 class listed No. 3 overall in the 247Sports composite rankings.
Penn State approaches the 2017 campaign still in search of its first pledge from junior prospects, though. In contrast, conference opponents Iowa and Michigan each claim three 4-star commitments from 2019 recruits.
Still, I implore you not to start searching for the panic button. The 2019 cupboard is also bare for Ohio State, along with reigning College Football Playoff champion Clemson. We’re still 18 months away from the National Signing Day that matters for this class, so exhale and breathe easy.
Franklin and his staff have made significant inroads with several notable talents. While no commitment appears imminent, it wouldn’t surprise to see one or two targets break the ice as initial members of the Nittany Lions’ 2019 class prior to the season.
Early quarterback commitments always are crucial and can set the tone for a successful cycle. Top-ranked 2019 QB J.T. Daniels pledged to Southern Cal on Sunday, and now the Trojans are in excellent position to build off that cornerstone piece. Evidence of this impact also can be found in Happy Valley, as 5-star QB Justin Fields became an immediate catalyst upon his Dec. 1 commitment to Penn State, though that pact fell apart in June.
Penn State doesn’t exactly seem poised to pick up a preseason pledge at the position. Scholarship offers are out to Max Duggan of Iowa, Taquan Roberson of New Jersey and Garrett Shrader of North Carolina, and all three attended camp in State College this summer. Roschon Johnson, the first quarterback to land on Franklin’s 2019 target board, committed to in-state Texas on July 21.
Beyond quarterback, blue-chip recruits such as edge rusher Brandon Smith, OT John Olmstead and DE Antonio Alfano are among top targets who’ve told Land of 10 they’re encouraged about early relationships with Penn State. But I don’t envision any of those players picking a college before the season. If you’re searching for potential preseason pickups, cornerback Nyquee Hawkins of New Jersey, running back Jordan Houston of Maryland, and local athlete Keaton Ellis come to mind.
2. Continue to fortify the 2018 defensive front
How the next six months play out for Penn State when it comes to recruiting defensive linemen ultimately could determine whether this 2018 class will be viewed as great or legendary in terms of all-time talent hauls for the program. No position presents higher upside for the Nittany Lions during the remainder of this cycle, which means it’s also accompanied by the potential for disappointment.
Penn State suffered a pivotal loss April 23 when 5-star edge defender Micah Parsons ended a 14-month commitment to the program. This 6-foot-3, 235-pound playmaker attends nearby Harrisburg (Pa.) High School, and he’s a close friend of 2018 pledge Shaquon Anderson-Butts and 2017 signee Damion Barber. It won’t be easy to bring him back into the fold while contending with schools such as Alabama, Florida, Nebraska and Ohio State, but it’s still a possibility.
Cross Parsons off your August wish list though, as he told Land of 10 a plan is in place to take this recruitment deep into winter. The same can now be said for 4-star DE Jayson Oweh of New Jersey, who previously intended to commit in August and use the early signing period (Dec. 20-22). Instead, Oweh said he will wait to announce his plans at the Under Armour All-America Game in January.
The Nittany Lions carry defensive line commitments from a pair of prospects: Judge Culpepper of Florida, and Dorian Hardy of New Jersey. Culpepper is expected to slide inside as a tackle, while Hardy seems best-suited for a role along the perimeter.
If Penn State manages to pick up another piece for the defensive trenches in August, I expect it to be an interior addition. Defensive tackles Aeneas Hawkins and PJ Mustipher are prime candidates to ultimately land in the 2018 class, and either could make that leap before their senior season.
Mustipher, a 6-5, 290-pound lineman from McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Md.) has become a frequent visitor in Happy Valley. He worked under the direction of Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer during a July 14 camp and stuck around the following day for Lasch Bash.
Hawkins, a 6-3, 265-pound prospect who is the son of former NFL defensive back Artrell Hawkins, also attended the Lasch Bash. He placed Penn State in his final two options this past weekend:
And then there were two… Commitment coming very soon. Stay Tuned! pic.twitter.com/cBXq207Ap9
— Aeneas Hawkins (@AeneasHawkins) July 30, 2017
Hawkins’ parents both attended Cincinnati and the Bearcats are undoubtedly a hometown favorite, but Penn State is surging in this process. He indicates a decision is “coming very soon,” so this might be the prospect to watch as a possible 21st member of the class.
3. Seal the deal with another blue-chip offensive lineman
The Nittany Lions are in solid shape when it comes to the offensive line trajectory in the 2018 cycle. The April 22 spring game provided a launch pad, as 4-star tackles Nana Asiedu and Antwan Reed pledged to Penn State hours before kickoff. This duo was joined by 3-star Illinois lineman Bryce Effner just two weeks later.
Now the Nittany Lions are looking to round out a promising group with additional standouts. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for that effort to conclude in August.
In-state standout Fredrick Scruggs is set to commit Aug. 4, and this boils down to a Big Ten battle between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions. Despite sustained reciprocated interest with Ohio State, the pendulum appears to have swung in Penn State’s direction for the interior enforcer folks call “Juice.” The Nittany Lions are now a unanimous pick to sign him in the 247Sports Crystal Ball predictions.
Scruggs, considered the No. 2 center in 2018 composite rankings, would become the eighth top-200 commitment for Penn State if that is indeed the choice.
There were rumblings in July that Rasheed Walker, a 4-star tackle from Maryland, might be ready to pull the trigger on a Penn State pledge. Though that has yet to happen, he is a prospect who could be closing in on his decision with alternative options, including Maryland and Virginia Tech.
The Nittany Lions are also in contention for compelling junior-college product T.J. Bradley. The 6-9, 300-pound tackle is a Virginia native who attends Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania. An August decision seems far less likely in his case, as he told Land of 10 a mid-season commitment is probable leading to January enrollment.