Stay updated as Penn State rises toward the top of the recruiting rankings! Don’t miss the coverage from Tyler Donohue, who brings a decade of experience as a national college football reporter and a recruiting department staff member with a Big Ten program. Read his daily notebooks here at 7:20 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and follow us on Twitter for the latest Nittany Lions recruiting news.
Happy Anniversary, Happy Valley
Thursday marks four years since Penn State formally introduced James Franklin as its head coach. The Pennsylvania native arrived in Happy Valley after three seasons at Vanderbilt that featured consecutive 9-win campaigns.
After leading the Commodores up a challenging SEC ladder, he took another notable task with the Nittany Lions. With wounds still fresh from the scandal that rocked Joe Paterno’s final months with the program, Bill O’Brien bolted for an NFL job in December 2013 after two seasons at Penn State.
Facing scholarship limitations, a bowl ban and general uncertainty, Franklin and his staff went to work focused on establishing a foundation.
“We’re coming here with the mindset that we’re going to build this program,” he said upon his introduction as coach. “We’re going to build it the right way, and we’re going to build it for the long haul. We plan on being here for a very, very long time. This is my dream job. This is where I want to be.”
Franklin’s first Nittany Lions class (2014) required a nationwide scramble to sustain O’Brien commitments and chase after others. Now only weeks away from finalizing his fifth class in Happy Valley, he has constructed a roster that’s finished top 10 in The Associated Press Poll two straight seasons, won the 2016 Big Ten championship and is fresh off a Fiesta Bowl victory.
“The best thing that helps us right now in recruiting is us having success on the field,” Penn State defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith 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.”
The Nittany Lions are on the verge of signing a top-10 overall recruiting class per 247Sports national composite rankings for the first time since 2006.
This 2018 Penn State class already includes 13 blue-chip (4- or 5-star recruits) signees and the Nittany Lions are in excellent position to land at least one or two more blue-chip prospects by the time things are finalized on National Signing Day (Feb. 7).
Before looking toward the future and a 2019 recruiting class featuring several top-tier players expressing interest in Penn State, let’s review the results of Franklin’s recruiting efforts on the four-year anniversary of his hiring.
Class Size: 25 players
Blue-Chip Ratio: 20 percent (five 4-star prospects)
Top-Ranked Recruits: WR Saeed Blacknall, WR Chris Godwin, TE Mike Gesicki, WR DeAndre Thompkins
3-Star Standouts: QB Trace McSorley, LB Jason Cabinda, S Marcus Allen, CB Grant Haley
Composite Class Ranking: No. 24 overall; No. 3 in Big Ten
This class was a blend of O’Brien era holdovers and late Penn State pursuits who typically had ties to members of the new Nittany Lions staff. Eventual program mainstays McSorley, Haley and Amani Oruwariye followed Franklin from their Vanderbilt commitments, while the coach flipped eventual defensive starters Koa Farmer and Torrence Brown from previous pledges elsewhere.
Penn State’s top signees represented a bright future for passing efforts, and combined for 3 touchdown receptions in the 2016 Big Ten title game. Starting safety Troy Apke was yet another notable 3-star prospect in this group.
Class Size: 25 players
Blue-Chip Ratio: 56 percent (14 4-star prospects)
Top-Ranked Recruits: RB Saquon Barkley, CB John Reid, CB Garrett Taylor, WR Juwan Johnson
3-Star Standouts: DE Shareef Miller, DT Kevin Givens, QB Tommy Stevens
Composite Class Ranking: No. 14 overall; No. 2 in Big Ten
The obvious headliner here is Barkley, who departs campus as a Penn State legend. He initially committed to Rutgers but flipped to the Nittany Lions soon after Franklin arrived. Ryan Bates and Steven Gonzalez, who were both 4-star recruits, have grown into starting offensive linemen, while Johnson broke out as a big-time contributor in 2017.
Miller emerged as a major force during his redshirt sophomore season, leading Penn State in sacks and tackles for loss. Reid missed the 2017 campaign with injury but should be a stalwart in the defensive backfield next season. The Nittany Lions struck gold at quarterback for a second straight cycle, as Stevens is one of college football’s most highly touted backup passers and a versatile offensive threat.
Class Size: 20 players
Blue-Chip Ratio: 40 percent (one 5-star prospect; seven 4-star prospects)
Top-Ranked Recruits: RB Miles Sanders, OL Michal Menet, DE Shane Simmons, DT Ellison Jordan
3-Star Standouts: OL Will Fries, DE Shaka Toney, P Blake Gillikin
Composite Class Ranking: No. 20 overall; No. 4 in Big Ten
Franklin signed his first 5-star recruit when in-state star Sanders joined the program. He’s contributed as a kick returner and backup running back through two seasons and is the anticipated leader to replace Barkley as primary ball carrier next season.
Simmons and Toney showed flashes of potential stardom during their redshirt freshman seasons, while Fries looks like a long-term solution at left tackle. Special teams signees are often overlooked but Gillikin quickly developed into an All-Big Ten punter and will compete for placekicker duties next season.
Penn State RB Miles Sanders arrived as a 5-star recruit in 2016. His opportunity awaits when Saquon Barkley heads to NFL.
James Franklin compared him to Aaron Rodgers behind Brett Favre (he was on Packers staff then).
What advice has Barkley given him? "Leave me some records." pic.twitter.com/9KgnWhWZd5
— Tyler Donohue (@TDsTake) December 15, 2017
Class Size: 21 players
Blue-Chip Ratio: 52 percent (11 4-star prospects)
Top-Ranked Recruits: CB Lamont Wade, OL C.J. Thorpe, QB Sean Clifford, DE Yetur Gross-Matos
3-Star Standouts: To be determined
Composite Class Ranking: No. 15 overall; No. 3 in Big Ten
This recruiting class largely spent 2017 sidelined, which is a testament to Penn State’s roster growth under the direction of Franklin. An increased stockpile of talent creates depth and makes the path to early playing time far more challenging than it was in 2014.
Cornerbacks Wade and Tariq Castro-Fields earned reps, as did Gross-Matos. We’ll learn more about this group next season as Penn State must plug holes left behind by accomplished seniors. Defensive tackle Fred Hansard, safety Jonathan Sutherland, linebacker Ellis Brooks and receiver KJ Hamler are among the former blue-chip signees to follow this spring.
2018 (in progress)
Class Size: 23 players
Blue-Chip Ratio: 57 percent (three 5-star prospects; 10 4-star prospects)
Top-Ranked Recruits: DE/LB Micah Parsons, WR Justin Shorter, RB Ricky Slade, OL Nana Asiedu
3-Star Standouts: To be determined
Composite Class Ranking: No. 4 overall; No. 2 in Big Ten
Penn State welcomed six members of this class to campus last weekend as early enrollees, including the highest-ranked signee of Franklin’s tenure (Parsons) and top-10 prospects at inside linebacker (Jesse Luketa) and tight end (Zack Kuntz).
The Nittany Lions will add six more top-200 overall talents this summer: receivers Shorter and Jahan Dotson, running back Slade, offensive tackle Asiedu, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher and defensive end Jayson Oweh. Penn State signed 7 of Pennsylvania’s top 11 prospects in December, and remains in pursuit of blue-chip recruits such as Arizona receiver Solomon Enis and Maryland offensive lineman Rasheed Walker.
Miss any previous editions of our daily Penn State recruiting notebook? You can find them all here.