Penn State is piecing together one of the finest 2018 recruiting classes in college football. Nittany Lions coach James Franklin is building a foundation for long-term success, but current commits also will be capable of making an immediate impact in Happy Valley.
It’s never set in stone which freshmen will position themselves for a quick climb up the depth chart. Variables include incumbent starters and trustworthy veterans ahead of them, physical development during those initial months on campus and, most importantly, an individual’s ability to digest a playbook and buy into team philosophy.
Simply put, there are wild-card factors that can accelerate or derail a newcomer’s quest for early snaps.
Despite this uncertainty, be assured that multiple members of Penn State’s 2018 talent haul will be on the field as true freshmen. Some could make the difference in marquee games that determine the program’s postseason fate next year, for better or worse.
Franklin has 13 committed recruits in a class listed No. 3 overall in the 247Sports composite rankings. It’s a talent-laden collection that includes five top-100 prospects, headlined by 5-star quarterback Justin Fields.
The 6-3, 221-pound Georgia product is coming off a weekend in which he made the Elite 11 cut and advanced to The Opening, an annual showcase event held at Nike’s world headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. Still, because of the possibility that Penn State starter Trace McSorley returns to a 2018 Nittany Lions quarterback room that should also feature 2017 spring game offensive MVP Tommy Stevens and 2016 Elite 11 selection Sean Clifford, there might not be a clear path to reps for the top-10 overall recruit.
He seems to be at peace with that, based on comments he made Saturday during a discussion with Greg Biggins of Scout.com.
“Trace is there and he’s a great quarterback,” Fields said. “He might leave [after the 2017 season], he might not. So if he stays, then no big deal. I just get to learn from him, redshirt and have the opportunity to start [in 2019].”
Such is life at a position where, ideally, one player takes all the snaps that matter.
Others might have a more manageable climb toward freshman opportunities. Here’s a brief look at five members of the 2018 class, as currently constructed, who could find an early role under the lights of Beaver Stadium.
3-star S Isaiah Humphries
High School: Sachse (Sachse, Texas)
Size: 5-11, 191 pounds
Composite Ranking: No. 30 safety; No. 367 overall
Like other positions on the roster, this one could be impacted by potential upcoming 2018 pledges. In-state safeties Kwantel Raines and Isheem Young are both 4-star prospects who list the Nittany Lions among top contenders.
Regardless of what kind of crowd forms in the secondary, I expect Isaiah Humphries to vie for consideration from the coaching staff as he progresses next spring. He plans to enroll early in January, according to Ryan Snyder of Rivals.com. Already fairly polished in back-end pass coverage, his aggressive approach toward run defense also warrants attention, and he seems tailor-made for a special teams coverage role.
4-star TE Zack Kuntz
High School: Camp Hill (Camp Hill, Pa.)
Size: 6-8, 221 pounds
Composite Ranking: No. 3 tight end; No. 90 overall
Penn State might lose McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley after the 2017 season, but the Nittany Lions definitely will say goodbye to record-setting TE Mike Gesicki. The rising senior caught every throw completed to a Nittany Lions tight end last season and, although redshirt sophomore Jon Holland enjoyed a strong spring game, there aren’t proven commodities down the depth chart.
Kuntz, who warrants consideration as the top tight end in high school, is an exceptional athlete at his height. He earned a Pennsylvania state title in 110-meter hurdles this spring and owns an established record of production at the prep level (107 receptions for 1,648 yards and 18 touchdowns through three seasons, per MaxPreps). The biggest factor here is how quickly Kuntz can develop a collegiate physique, though early enrollment will allow him a head start in that effort.
“It’s a great advantage getting to do spring ball with the team, and for me, a big part of football is, I’m going to need to put on weight, and that’s something I’ll be able to do under the coaches’ guidance and everything,” he told Greg Pickel of PennLive.com.
3-star LB Jesse Luketa
High School: Mercyhurst Prep (Erie, Pa.)
Size: 6-3, 238 pounds
Composite Ranking: No. 17 inside linebacker; No. 334 overall
Jesse Luketa is among Nittany Lions pledges most likely to receive an industry rankings bump by the end of his senior season, and 247Sports’ solo rankings already identify him as a 4-star talent. He looked dominant throughout much of his junior season, and ensuing offers from schools such as Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State and Stanford further validate his development.
A native of Ontario, Canada, Luketa is recognized as one of the true leaders of this class, and he is a catalyst when it comes to peer recruiting. Those natural leadership qualities will serve him well upon arrival in Happy Valley. Like the previous two prospects we’ve highlighted, Luketa plans to enroll early, according to Pickel. He told Land of 10 that Penn State coaches see him at either the “Will” or “Sam” linebacker position.
4-star WR Justin Shorter
High School: South Brunswick (South Brunswick, N.J.)
Size: 6-4, 216 pounds
Composite Ranking: No. 8 receiver; No. 46 overall
Justin Shorter, the Garden State’s top-ranked rising senior recruit, isn’t certain about when he’ll join the roster, but he told Land of 10 in May that he is considering early enrollment. Few prospects have seen their stature elevated the way Shorter has this spring; he’s earned invitations to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, the Under Armour All-America Game and The Opening.
Shorter has surged more than 100 spots in composite rankings since the conclusion of his junior season, while adding nearly 20 pounds without sacrificing speed (he clocked a 4.50-second 40-yard dash in April). He looks like a player who has entered a new phase of his career, physically and mentally, and few defenders at the high school level can hang with him in coverage. Among the members of this class, I have a hard time identifying anyone with a better shot at impressing Penn State’s staff early.
“I think he’s going to be a huge factor for Penn State, probably as soon as he gets to campus,” said New Jersey QB Devin Leary, who joined Fields at Elite 11 finals and worked with Shorter at two spring camps.
Simply put, he's impressive.
I put together these highlights.
— Tyler Donohue (@TDsTake) May 21, 2017
5-star RB Ricky Slade
High School: C.D. Hylton (Woodbridge, Va.)
Size: 5-9, 185 pounds
Composite Ranking: No. 1 all-purpose back; No. 26 overall
The shelf life for running backs is arguably more limited than any other position in football, so it’s difficult to envision Barkley returning for his senior season if he has an opportunity to cash in as a top-tier NFL draft pick next spring. If the anticipated Heisman Trophy candidate does leave school after the 2017 season, there are intriguing options in place behind him.
Miles Sanders was among my favorite offensive prospects nationally in the 2016 recruiting class, and he returns to the field significantly more formidable as a sophomore. Some experience on offense and special teams as a true freshman put him in position to claim carries that don’t go to Barkley this fall. Incoming rusher Journey Brown was a tremendously productive high school player and just captured another state title in the 100-meter dash, setting a Pennsylvania prep record (10.43).
Throw Slade into the mix, and it’s clear there is plenty of promise for Nittany Lions running backs coach Charles Huff in an era beyond Barkley. Slade surpassed 100 rushing yards in nine of 10 games as a junior, per MaxPreps, and showed off his receiving skill with 25 catches for 338 yards and 4 scores. Versatility often earns a young running back reps, and Slade brings a multi-faceted arsenal to the backfield.
— #WeAre (@NittanyNation38) May 19, 2017