When Penn State went to Pittsburgh for a rivalry showdown with Pitt in mid-September, there was plenty of discussion about the potential impact of the game on future recruits, particularly those from western Pennsylvania.
While it is true that Penn State has looked west for plenty of impact talent over the past half-century or so, the Nittany Lions have never really “owned” the region. Even if Pitt wasn’t in a position to compete for the best talent, programs like Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan also have lured plenty of elite prospects away from western Pennsylvania.
In truth, Penn State’s best recruiting work in the past 15 years has been done in the area known as “the DMV” — the District of Columbia, Maryland and northern Virginia. That is the University of Maryland’s home turf, but the Nittany Lions have raided the area for many of its best players in the 21st century.
There was a slight blip in the early 2000s, when Ralph Friedgen had Maryland rolling and Penn State sustained one of its worst stretches of the past 50 years. During that period, Maryland kept several elite players at home, most notably defensive end Shawne Merriman and tight end Vernon Davis.
Then Penn State landed Derrick Williams, one of the highest-rated recruits ever in the DMV, in 2005 and the Nittany Lions began to reassert their dominance in the area.
Penn State’s haul from the DMV in the Class of 2006 might be one of the craziest raids of a nearby recruiting area in the history of the sport. The Nittany Lions landed six players who were 4-star recruits from Maryland or northern Virginia, and a seventh from Norfolk, Va., which is considered more of Virginia and Virginia Tech’s home turf.
Beyond those seven players, which included key contributors like tight end Andrew Quarless and cornerback A.J. Wallace, Penn State also collected a pair of 3-star recruits, NaVorro Bowman and Aaron Maybin, from Maryland who became defensive stars, and an unheralded running back/lacrosse player from Northern Virginia named Evan Royster.
While landing Williams was lauded a signal that “Penn State was back,” the Class of 2006 provided the foundation for 40 victories in four seasons from 2006-09 and a return to the Rose Bowl after the 2008 season. A majority of the impact players came from raiding Maryland’s backyard.
Royster became the program’s all-time leading rusher. One of his teammates, Deon Butler, became the all-time leading receiver after being a walk-on from northern Virginia.
Much of Penn State’s success in the area was attributed to former assistant coach Larry Johnson, Sr., (whose son was another DMV import in the Class of 1999) but the Nittany Lions have continued to recruit well in the region since he left. Still, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the No. 1 player in the region in the Class of 2017, defensive end Chase Young, is committed to Ohio State, where Johnson now coaches.
There are nine players on the current Penn State roster that were recruited from the region, including starting quarterback Trace McSorley, wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, safety Marcus Allen and the No. 41 player in the nation in the Class of 2016 (and No. 1 player in Maryland), defensive end Shane Simmons.
Four members of the Class of 2017 currently committed to Penn State are from Virginia, including three of the team’s five 4-star commits. One of the top players in the nation in the Class of 2018, 5-star running back Ricky Slade, plays at Butler’s high school in northern Virginia and is a top target for the Nittany Lions.
New Maryland coach D.J. Durkin has stressed that keeping local talent home is of the utmost importance for his staff. The Terps are 4-0 and will come to Beaver Stadium this weekend (Noon, ET. TV: Big Ten Network) looking for the first signature victory of the Durkin era.
The following list is a collection of the best players Penn State has plucked from the DMV in the past 15 years. This list is why Durkin needs to keep more players home, and why Penn State needs to continue to mine the DMV for talent.
Tony Hunt, Alexandria, Va. (2003)
Tony Hunt went to the school that “Remember the Titans” is based on and is about 16 miles from the Maryland campus. While quarterback Michael Robinson (Richmond, Va.) and a trio of wideouts (Butler, Williams and Jordan Norwood, who grew up in Maryland but played at State College High School) brought Penn State’s passing attack up to modern standards, Hunt was a workhorse in the backfield and is third in program history in rushing yards with 3,320.
Derrick Williams, Greenbelt, Md. (2005)
Derrick Williams’ father worked at Maryland, but the university laid him off and didn’t make the list of Derrick’s finalists. Rivals had Williams as the No. 1 player in America, and analysts compared him to Reggie Bush. He didn’t quite have that type of impact, but Williams is fourth in receptions and was a valuable weapon who lined up at wide receiver, running back and as a Wildcat quarterback, and also returned punts and kicks.
Deon Butler, Fairfax, Va. (2005)
Deon Butler was a walk-on who began his career as a cornerback and ended it as the all-time leading receiver in Penn State history. He, not Williams, set the program record for freshman receptions and receiving yards, marks that Hamilton recently eclipsed.
NaVorro Bowman, District Heights, Md. (2006)
NaVorro Bowman was an all-conference player for Penn State, a disruptive force at outside linebacker. He was a third-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, and he’s a three-time Pro Bowl selection with San Francisco, though he’s out for the 2016 season with an Achilles injury.
Aaron Maybin, Ellicott City, Md. (2006)
Aaron Maybin was a first-team All-Big Ten performer and All-American in 2008. He had 12 sacks, and 20 tackles for loss to help Penn State win the Big Ten. Maybin and Bowman combined for 365. Tackles for loss that season. He was the No. 11 pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, but outside of 2011 (six sacks), his professional career was a disappointment.
Andrew Quarless, Chantilly, Va. (2006)
Andrew Quarless was a highly rated prospect who had one strong season for Penn State but never quite became what people expected of him. He had 41 catches in 2009, and became a fifth-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. His NFL career has gone about the same as his college days, with flashes of excellence amongst inconsistency and suspension trouble.
Evan Royster, Chantilly, Va. (2006)
Evan Royster was the other guy at Westfield High School, and would have been a Division I lacrosse player before focusing on football and becoming Penn State’s all-time leading rusher. From 2004-10, Penn State’s leading rusher hailed from northern Virginia in six of those seven seasons.
Zach Zwinak, Frederick, Md. (2010)
Zack Mills was Penn State’s starting quarterback at the beginning of the century, and was also a Frederick native. Zach Zwinak had exactly 1,000 yards in 2012 and fell just short with 989 in 2013 as the feature back for coach Bill O’Brien. He slipped on the depth chart in 2014 with James Franklin in charge and sustained a season-ending injury halfway through the season.
Donovan Smith, Owings Mills, Md. (2011)
Donovan Smith started 31 games from 2012-14 at left tackle, and was a second-round pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2015 NFL Draft. He has started all 20 games in his NFL career for the Bucs.
Christian Hackenberg, Palmyra, Va. (2013)
Technically, Palmyra is outside what most people consider “northern Virginia” and is closer to Charlottesville than College Park. Still, Christian Hackenberg was one of the most sought-after players in the nation in 2013 and committed to Penn State despite the NCAA sanctions. His career may feel unfulfilled after such a promising freshman season, but he did finish as the program’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns.