Each month until National Signing Day on Feb. 7, I’ll project the 2018 Penn State recruiting class on both sides of the ball. We’ll address the latest Nittany Lions outlook on defense Wednesday. First, our offensive projection.
Penn State appears settled at several positions in this class, though question marks remain in a few spots. Intrigue on offense is found at receiver and along the trenches. Only one week away from college football’s new early signing period (Dec. 20-22), there are known targets who could soon fill those scholarship slots.
Since peaking at 23 pledges on Aug. 10, the Nittany Lions are down three commitments. This includes the departure of 4-star offensive tackle Antwan Reed, who announced Dec. 7 he is no longer a member of Penn State’s class.
While substantial focus is alloted toward a trio of defensive line targets moving forward, expect James Franklin to acquire additional top talent on offense. Penn State prospects remain confident in their expectations for the Nittany Lions attack following the loss of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who took over as coach at Mississippi State and was swiftly replaced by longtime Franklin assistant Ricky Rahne.
Here is the latest look at how I anticipate the 2018 class will come together on National Signing Day, including a pair of blue-chip prospects climbing on board.
Quarterback (1): 3-star Will Levis (Middletown, Conn.)
Penn State has parted ways with six previously committed prospects during the course of this recruiting cycle. There is a strong case to made that none of these developments stung more from a football standpoint than Justin Fields’ June 6 decision to de-commit.
The 5-star quarterback spent six months as a marquee member of the class, earning Elite 11 MVP honors while still representing Penn State’s future. However, collegiate attention rapidly expanded last offseason, and Fields eventually re-opened his recruitment before announcing in October his plans to join the Georgia Bulldogs.
The Nittany Lions were proactive in attempts to locate his replacement, making contact with committed and uncommitted quarterbacks in various regions. This led Penn State to offer Will Levis while he was on campus for a mid-July camp, resulting in a practically immediate commitment from the New England standout.
Levis, an athletic 6-foot-4, 222-pound prospect from Xavier High School, followed his collegiate decision with an impressive senior campaign. He established career-high production across the stat sheet, completing 56 percent of pass attempts for 2,771 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Levis added 6 scores on the ground, and he was intercepted 8 times in 10 games. He should be provided plenty of time to develop at Penn State with Trace McSorley and/or Tommy Stevens expected to handle starting quarterback duties through 2019. His primary competition presumably would come from current freshman Sean Clifford, 2019 pledge Taquan Roberson and any other potential commitments.
Running back (1): 5-star Ricky Slade (Woodbridge, Va.)
The progression of Penn State’s offensive backfield figures to be a hot topic throughout the offseason. There is little doubt the Fiesta Bowl will be Saquon Barkley’s final game in a Nittany Lions uniform; the junior running back is evaluated as a top-tier NFL draft prospect.
Sophomore Miles Sanders impressed when provided opportunities this season and arrived on campus in 2016 considered one the top prospects at his position. Still, expect a battle for carries leading into next September.
Ricky Slade, committed to Penn State since Feb. 3, has the skill set to state his case for early inclusion as a component of the backfield rotation. Running backs coach Charles Huff followed Moorhead to Mississippi State as his top assistant, but he leaves behind a talented group of playmakers.
Expect Slade to inject a level of all-purpose ability that someday could approach what Barkley provided. He starred as a running back, receiver and kick returner this season for C.D. Hylton High School, surpassing 2,700 all-purpose yards.
Slade is a scintillating slasher in the open field, collecting 1,978 rushing yards in 2017. He scored 40 total touchdowns along the way, and he recently received a bump to 5-star status in updated composite rankings.
A slew of postseason honors includes the Monday announcement that Slade was named 2017 Gatorade Player of the Year in Virgina.
— Hudl (@Hudl) December 11, 2017
Receiver (4): 3-star Shaquon Anderson-Butts (Harrisburg, Pa.), 4-star Solomon Enis (Phoenix), 4-star Daniel George (Oxon Hill, Md.), 5-star Justin Shorter (Monmouth Junction, N.J.)
You’ll be hard-pressed to identify a position at Penn State with more long-term potential than receiver. The Nittany Lions, loaded with experience here in 2017, were able to redshirt 2017 signees KJ Hamler and Mac Hippenhammer.
This pair should be a factor in the fight for reps next fall, but they’ll also need to contend with an impressive collection of newcomers.
Justin Shorter is the headliner here and deserves national consideration for No. 1 overall receiver in the 2018 class. This 6-4, 215-pound Garden State standout has climbed more than 100 spots in composite rankings since his junior season, earned first-team honors at The Opening and capped off his prep career at South Brunswick High School on Dec. 2 with 1 final touchdown reception in a state championship victory.
He is the longest-lasting member of Penn State’s class, while Shaquon Anderson-Butts and Daniel George joined him in mid-July. They both enjoyed productive senior campaigns.
Anderson-Butts helped Harrisburg High School record an unbeaten regular season with 31 receptions for 546 yards and 10 scores, according to MaxPreps. George collected a career-best 61 catches for 897 yards and 10 touchdowns, and he doubles as a track and field star.
Unlike in months past, I’m projecting Nittany Lions legacy Solomon Enis also will land in this class. Additional scholarship availability and his recent trip to Happy Valley, along with an in-home visit from receivers coach Josh Gattis last week, lead me to believe Penn State is in solid position to beat out multiple Pac-12 contenders for his commitment.
— Solomon. (@SolomonEnis) November 20, 2017
Tight end (2): 4-star Pat Freiermuth (North Andover, Mass.), 4-star Zack Kuntz (Camp Hill, Pa.)
I’ve dedicated thousands of words this recruiting cycle detailing why Penn State carries the premier tight end tandem in college football. That became clear while assessing their junior-season film and watching both compete in various camp settings.
Pat Freiermuth and Zack Kuntz left little to doubt during their respective senior seasons. They are firmly top-10 prospects at the position in composite rankings after delivering dominant performances this fall.
Kuntz surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in his prep career, punctuated by a 300-yard effort in his final game. The 6-8, 222-pound prospect finished high school with nearly 3,000 career receiving yards and 26 touchdown catches.
He is prepared to enroll at Penn State in January, which is a key development considering his transition to collegiate action requires significant physical development. Kuntz is a true athletic freak and claimed a state track championship last spring in 110-meter hurdles.
Freiermuth stands 6-5 and should exceed 250 pounds througout his collegiate career. He exhibits consistency as a run blocker and continues to increase the precision of his pass routes. Among his 13 touchdowns this season, 10 occurred from at least 20 yards out, according to Mac Cerullo of the Newbury Port News.
Freiermuth will join Kuntz on campus in the summer. Both players appear capable of vying for playing time as freshmen following the departure of All-American tight end Mike Gesicki.
— Pat Freiermuth (@pat_fry5) December 10, 2017
Offensive line (4): 4-star Nana Asiedu (Stafford, Va.), 3-star Bryce Effner (Aurora, Ill.), 4-star Fredrick Scruggs (Erie, Pa.), 4-star Rasheed Walker (Waldorf, Md.)
I already projected Rasheed Walker to Penn State in earlier submissions here, and this sentiment is a bit more enhanced now. Walker spent last weekend on campus for his official visit, surrounded by 14 Nittany Lions pledges, and I’m told it was a very positive experience.
The recent deduction of former tackle commit Antwan Reed makes it clear Walker is a higher priority than ever and has a spot to claim in this class.
Penn State still must contend with Maryland, Ohio State and Virginia Tech for Walker’s commitment, but I get the sense a recruitment that seemed destined to end in State College this summer will ultimately conclude with that result. This 6-6, 300-pound U.S. Army All-American would provide the Nittany Lions with a pair of top-10 recruits at tackle.
Nana Asiedu is the other, while Bryce Effner is viewed as a top-50 talent at the position. Fredrick “Juice” Scruggs, a premier in-state target, projects as a formidable interior lineman.
There has been abundant discussion about offensive line developement during this season, and increased physicality in the trenches likely will be a mantra during months to come. It’s extremely difficult to crack the starting line as a freshman, but this talented group would at the very least raise depth to an all-time high under Franklin’s supervision.
PennState was Turnt🔵⚪️🔵⚪️ pic.twitter.com/CzeViEeCjz
— Rasheed Walker (@Cinc0Tre5) December 11, 2017