Follow along with our Penn State Recruiting Rewind series every Saturday morning. If you missed out, be sure to read our look back at RB Saquon Barkley, LB Brandon Bell, WR Chris Godwin and QB Trace McSorley.
Perhaps it’s indicative of the current college football recruiting climate that Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda is our third consecutive “Rewind” subject who initially committed elsewhere.
The 6-foot-1, 232-pound Nittany Lions senior, a 2016 All-Big Ten third-team selection, planned to attend Syracuse. Cabinda, a product of Hunterdon Central High School in New Jersey, pledged to former Orange coach Scott Shafer on July 1, 2013.
The announcement happened two months before the beginning of his senior season:
— Jason Cabinda (@jasoncabinda) July 1, 2013
Cabinda, who also held scholarship offers from Boston College, Maryland, Navy and Temple, said he was attracted to the university’s environment.
“[Syracuse] was the first place that felt like home,” he told Charles Guthrie of The Star-Ledger after his decision. “Every other visit I went on I didn’t buy any gear, but, at Syracuse, I couldn’t leave without getting something from the school store.”
Cabinda competed at linebacker and running back in high school. He gained 3,051 yards on the ground as an upperclassman and established a Hunterdon Central High record with 50 career touchdowns, according to his Penn State bio.
The Red Devils claimed a New Jersey Group IV state championship in his final prep game. Cabinda made a huge impact in that victory, per John Haley of The Star-Ledger, totaling 186 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 sacks.
By then, he was a member of the Nittany Lions class.
Former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien extended an offer in September 2013, a move at least somewhat sparked by the removal of scholarship sanctions against the program.
“Jason has always been Penn State’s next guy up, per say,” Ryan Snyder of Rivals.com told Nate Mink of Syracuse.com when that offer arrived Sept. 29. “For the most part, he was always going to get an offer. All the [restored scholarships] did was speed up that process.”
An in-person assessment by multiple staff members at a Hunterdon Central game also pushed momentum forward.
“Penn State’s biggest concern with me was that they didn’t have any film on me playing linebacker,” Cabinda told Todderick Hunt of NJ.com in October 2013 . “Last year, I was more of a stand-up D-end kind of guy, and they needed to see me as a legit stand-up guy off the line of scrimmage.”
Cabinda’s commitment to Syracuse immediately wavered when Penn State entered the picture. He quickly followed up with an Oct. 12 visit to Happy Valley, watching the Nittany Lions defeat Michigan, 43-40.
“They were probably the first place I went to that I really fell in love with,” Cabinda told Hunt. “Being at the Michigan game kind of reassured things for me.”
O’Brien bagged a commitment from him less than two weeks later. His pledge to Syracuse lasted nearly four months, ending with an Oct. 23 flip.
“I’m looking to continue the tradition at ‘Linebacker U’,” he told Hunt.
Anybody wanna buy my Syracuse sweatshirt for 25
— Jason Cabinda (@jasoncabinda) March 8, 2014
Here’s a rundown of how recruiting industry leaders viewed Cabinda among 2014 high school graduates. As you can see via the “athlete” label, not all were sure where he would end up on the field in college.
- 247Sports: No. 108 athlete; No. 1,269 overall; 3-star prospect
- ESPN: No. 119 athlete; unranked nationally; 3-star prospect
- Rivals: unranked inside linebacker; unranked nationally; 3-star prospect
- Scout: No. 87 outside linebacker; unranked nationally; 3-star prospect
Scout.com analyst Brian Dohn briefly broke down Cabinda in December 2013 after evaluating him during a Hunterdon Central game.
“Cabinda is an impressive high school player and he dominates games with his physical, smart style,” he wrote. “The biggest concern is whether he has the size to chase down plays against the speed of the elite programs in the Big Ten, particularly Ohio State.”
Cabinda answered the bell against those Buckeyes last fall. He recorded 13 tackles and brought down Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett during Penn State’s decisive defensive stand.
The Nittany Lions feature few players who can be counted on more to contribute each week. He tallied at least 8 tackles in eight of his nine games in 2016.
In addition to serving as a leader in State College this season, Cabinda will audition for a future in professional football. He is considered the No. 8 inside linebacker prospect in the 2018 rankings on NFLDraftScout.com.
— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) May 18, 2017
There was a brief moment when the likelihood of him landing in Happy Valley seemed threatened. O’Brien bolted for the Houston Texans job in January 2014, a month before National Signing Day.
“I’m somewhat open, but right now I’m 100 percent committed to Penn State, and the only thing that will put me on edge is if they were to hire a bad coach,” Cabinda told Mink after that departure.
The hiring of Vanderbilt coach James Franklin solidified things, and Cabinda eventually served as a catalyst during the program’s breakout 2016 campaign. Cabinda was one of four Garden State recruits signed in Franklin’s debut Penn State recruiting class.