Tyler Donohue/Land of 10
Micah Parsons (right) earned MVP honors last June at Penn State's 7-on-7 tournament. He is now enrolled at the university.

Penn State recruiting mailbag: Hopes for a top class in 2019; thoughts on early enrollees

Tyler Donohue

Have Penn State football recruiting questions? We have answers. Join us every Thursday for the Land of 10 Penn State recruiting mailbag to discuss Nittany Lions recruiting. This week, we discuss 2018 signees who may make an immediate impact and remaining targets beyond the early signing period.

Penn State recruiting efforts are relentless, so we always have plenty to address here. Let’s get started.

While it should be noted that the Nittany Lions aren’t ensured a top-five overall recruiting class in 2018 quite yet, there’s no doubt this has been a landmark cycle in James Franklin’s tenure.

Penn State is presently listed No. 4 nationally in 247Sports composite class rankings, slightly ahead of College Football Playoff competitors Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma. Considering the size of this Nittany Lions class (22 signees, one verbal commit), there is a strong likelihood at least another program or two will move ahead when the dust settles on National Signing Day (Feb. 7).

Regardless of the top-tier talent other teams add in the coming weeks, or how Penn State fills its remaining scholarship slots, a top-10 class is seemingly certain in State College for the first time since 2006. That’s a big step for Franklin and his staff following back-to-back 11-win seasons, signifying increased effectiveness with elite talent and an expanded reach on the recruiting trail.

“The best thing that helps us right now in recruiting is us having success on the field,” Nittany Lions defensive recruiting coordinator/cornerbacks coach Terry Smith said during the early signing period. “In the last two years we’ve won double-digit games and it’s enhanced our recruiting.

“It’s allowed us to be relevant in conversations that the previous couple years we weren’t relevant in, so we’re just going to keep presenting Penn State.”

So what’s next?

Well, it’s fair to say 2019 recruiting efforts are operating at a slower rate in terms of results. Penn State carries two verbal commitments from high school juniors: New Jersey quarterback Taquan Roberson and local State College cornerback Keaton Ellis.

This time last cycle, the Nittany Lions held pledges from blue-chip prospects such as Micah Parsons, Justin Shorter, Zack Kuntz and Pat Freiermuth. However, it’s important to note the impact Penn State has made on elite talent across America.

More than ever, it appears the Nittany Lions are focused on converting on-field success into a national recruiting footprint. Among the 90-plus scholarship offers Penn State has presented to high school juniors, only two belong to Pennsylvania athletes.

Penn State-Keaton Ellis
Cornerback Keaton Ellis became Penn State’s first verbal commitment of the 2019 recruiting cycle in September. (Tyler Donohue/Land of 10)

These widespread efforts are working. That became increasingly clear earlier this month when I encountered dozens of coveted 2019 talents in Orlando, Fla., while covering Under Armour All-America festivities.

When Penn State surfaced in conversations, the reactions were positive and several marquee recruits expressed sincere interest in potentially attending the university. Just among that group, the Nittany Lions seem set up as a legitimate contender for athletes such as 5-star offensive tackle Devontae Dobbs (Belleville, Mich.), 5-star receiver Isaiah Williams (St. Louis), top-five safety Lewis Cine, and top-10 linebackers Marcel Brooks (Flower Mound, Texas) and Brandon Smith (Mineral, Va.).

Each of these recruitments could last nearly another year if not all the way into February 2019, but Penn State has done an excellent job ensuring it’s at least under serious consideration at an early stage. Expect this class to feature even more of a regionally diverse feel than a 2018 collection of signees that represents 11 states.

The Nittany Lions have been selective with in-state players so far, but should be able to sign a significant percentage of those ultimately prioritized. Penn State will also do its usual damage in talent-laden Mid-Atlantic states Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia. But the web is weaved for big-time additions from far beyond Big Ten territory.

Another top-10 class should be well within reach if Penn State delivers another successful season that keeps a national spotlight on State College.

Let’s turn our attention to some players who may impact that quest next fall…

This is a timely question from Lorie, who delivered it during our weekly Facebook Live show (8 p.m. Wednesday here).

Penn State welcomed six members of its 2018 recruiting class to campus last week. The early enrollees are going through a whirlwind learning experience, ranging from classroom expectations to weight room challenges. Plus, for some, it’s the first time mom and dad haven’t been around to handle laundry duties.

To review, the six freshmen who arrived early are:

What stands out immediately here is the trio of linebackers, including 5-star recruit Micah Parsons. Though he received plenty of attention as a defensive end throughout high school, plenty of programs eyed his abilities in a stand-up role and Franklin made it clear following his signing that Parsons will compete to replace departed senior middle linebacker Jason Cabinda.

That’s also where Jesse Luketa intends to push for early playing time. A natural leader who displays desirable instincts at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, he transferred from Ottawa to Mercyhurst Prep (Erie, Pa.) for a shot at collegiate offers and ended up with more than 40.

While plenty of people are already wondering whether Parsons is ultimately destined for a transition to defensive end, Nick Taburton may be the most likely candidate for that route. This 6-3, 250-pound playmaker recorded nearly 300 tackles at Pennridge High School and did much of his finest work near the line of scrimmage.

His father, Rick Tarburton, shed some light on the potential for a position change during our discussion last month.

“He’ll play anywhere Coach Franklin tells him to play. Nick is a football player,” Rick said. “He wants to play linebacker. I think he likes the leadership aspects of linebacker, especially middle linebacker, but when he was younger he played defensive end for years. They moved him to linebacker because teams would run away from him when he was at end. As far as where he’ll play, I think it’s going to depend on what the team needs.”

Behind these three linebackers, the Nittany Lions added a pair of defensive backs from the Lone Star State. The Penn State secondary suffers some key losses this offseason, saying goodbye to productive seniors Marcus Allen, Troy Apke, Christian Campbell and Grant Haley.

Few freshmen saw the field for Penn State in 2017, but two carved out roles at cornerback: Tariq Castro-Fields and Lamont Wade. Early experience should help this duo entering their second season, while the return of John Reid from injury provides another boost at cornerback.

Trent Gordon still envisions an opportunity to make his mark on this competitive group.

“One of my goals is to either start or be in rotation with the other defensive backs when the season starts,” Gordon told Land of 10 prior to his enrollment.

I believe Isaiah Humphries, son of former Nittany Lions defensive back Leonard Humphries, has an excellent chance to enter the conversation at safety with a strong spring camp.

Zack Kuntz and members of the Penn State staff have stressed physical development as a point of emphasis in his efforts to replace Mike Gesicki. The Nittany Lions return some experience at tight end but no one on the roster has delivered a consistent stretch of collegiate success to this point, due in large part to Gesicki’s vast quantity of reps these past two years.

The 6-7, 240-pound Kuntz is a dynamic athlete who collected nearly 3,000 receiving yards during his high school career. Despite immense potential and recognition as one of America’s premier tight prospects, coaches won’t rush him into action before he is ready.

“I think we’re going to have time to grow him,” Franklin said. “Him graduating early is really going to help. If he gets on the field, great. He doesn’t have to get on the field as a freshman like [Gesicki] did. There will be value in that as well. Let him kind of marinate in the weight room a little bit and take some time, but he is a long, athletic kid who can run.”

The remainder of Penn State’s 2018 class — approximately 20 players — arrives this summer. Considering 18 of 21 freshmen redshirted this past season, it’s clear the depth-chart climb isn’t easy these days in Happy Valley. But the anticipation here is more newcomers will warrant key roles this fall.

Have a question about Penn State recruiting? Tweet us @Landof10PSU and we’ll try to answer it in a future mailbag. Check to see if your issue already was addressed by reading previous Penn State recruiting mailbags here.