The reality Big Ten East teams face at the beginning of each recruiting cycle is stark and unforgiving. To keep pace with Michigan and Ohio State, they must battle at the top of the prep talent food chain. In no division is there a more pressing need for premium prospects: Bring in elite high schoolers, or lose. Whereas the Buckeyes and Wolverines can lean on a stockpile of high three-, four- and five stars even if a few key guys graduate or jump to the NFL, other East squads scrap to collect just enough A-listers to give themselves a chance.
Ohio State and Michigan are not invincible. Michigan State, for example, has shown it can surmount the recruiting disparity with steady player development and tactical acumen. But that doesn’t diminish the urgency to make roster upgrades that can help close the gap with the more highly touted personnel lining the Buckeyes’ and Wolverines’ two-deeps. Look no further than what happened to the Spartans last season for a glimpse at how steep the dips can be for programs without a blue-chip buffer to fall back on.
Penn State is working to ensure that won’t happen. Its 2018 recruiting class is stuffed with the sort of high-end talent the Nittany Lions need to ensure their 11-win ride to a Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl was a sustainable step forward rather than a brief brush with glory. The group counts 20 players, with one earning a five-star rating (wide receiver Justin Shorter) and more than half earning four stars, a little more than a week removed from one of the more remarkable commitment sprees in the Power 5 this cycle.
Between July 14 and July 18, the Nittany Lions picked up six verbals: Three-star Plant (Fla.) High defensive tackle Judge Culpepper, three-star Harrisburg (Pa.) High wide receiver Shaquon Anderson-Butts, three-star Middletown (Ct.) High quarterback Will Levis, Ankeny Centennial (Iowa) High kicker Jake Pinegar, four-star Oxon Hill (Md.) wide receiver Daniel George and four-star Imhotep Institute Charter (Pa.) High defensive back Isheem Young. The volley of pledges pushed Penn State to No. 3 in the 247Sports Composite team rankings, behind only Ohio State and Miami.
Last season offered prima facie evidence that the Nittany Lions can claim a seat at the big kids’ table even if they aren’t brimming with former high school All-Americas. They were run off the field in a 39-point rout in Ann Arbor in September, but their only other defeat was by three points on the road to a Pitt team with the nation’s No. 3 offense, according to Football Outsiders S&P+ statistic. A three-point triumph over Ohio State at home six weeks later catapulted Penn State to within one spot of a College Football Playoff berth.
The positive vibes kept flowing in Pasadena, as the Nittany Lions traded punches with a stacked USC squad quarterbacked by 2017 Heisman Trophy frontrunner Sam Darnold, but their glorious campaign shouldn’t obscure the disquiet that hung over Happy Valley before it began. Anyone with a hot seat column to write last summer at the very least gave some thought to listing James Franklin, and athletic director Sandy Barbour saw fit to give him a public vote of confidence the week after that ugly loss to Michigan.
Franklin apparently didn’t need it, but it can’t go unmentioned that his team’s success in 2016 hinged on something Penn State probably won’t have again this decade. Running back Saquon Barkley is a physical marvel and special runner with a knack for coming through when the lights shine brightest and a better shot at beating out Darnold for the Heisman Trophy than any other non-QB. Assuming he bolts next spring to become a top-10 draft pick and some NFL team’s feature back, the Nittany Lions will need to hit reset without the game-breaking threat that catalyzed offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s go-go attack last season.
While Barkley wasn’t the sole reason Penn State tore most of the defenses it faced asunder last season, his case helps explain why this class is such a big deal for the Nittany Lions. By raising their overall talent level, they can alleviate the impact of mega-stars leaving town. This haul almost definitely won’t furnish Saquon 2.0, but there’s a better chance this group of rising seniors includes Bigfoot in pads than that mythical player. And anyway, Penn State couldn’t have done much better than plucking Ricky Slade, who is rated the No. 2 all-purpose back in the class of 2018, according to the 247Sports Composite, out of C.D. Hylton (Va.) High.
Waving farewell to Barkley will sting, but unless Slade reneges on his commitment—the Buckeyes were also in the running for him—he’ll be in Happy Valley for the start of next season, and with rising sophomore and former five-star recruit Miles Sanders (who recorded 7.4 yards per carry on limited touches in 2016, albeit with four fumbles) around, Slade won’t be forced to bear the bulk of the rushing workload right away. You won’t find many running back succession plans north of Tuscaloosa with more potential than what the Nittany Lions have lined up to fill the void Barkley will leave behind (presumably) for 2018.
That’s just one player at one position. The larger point here is that Penn State is pulling in highly regarded prospects across the board (from Shorter to Slade to tight end Zack Kuntz to safety Isheem Young to offensive tackle Nana Asiedu and on down the line) that will goose their talent baseline and help reduce the number of individual mismatches the Nittany Lions face in pivotal matchups with East heavyweights. One class won’t remake a roster, but it can serve as an important piece of the foundation.
“I feel like if we’re able to just build on what’s been going on this past year, then we’ll be one of the teams that will be a national contender,” says four-star Paramus Catholic (N.J.) High defensive end Dorian Hardy, who chose Penn State over scholarship offers from Ohio State, Alabama and Clemson, among others. “I feel like when we’re able to just put our talents together, we’re going to be something special.”
The Nittany Lions’ 2018 recruiting efforts have not been as fruitful as the current state of their class suggests. They saw their top two recruits, defensive end Micah Parsons and quarterback Justin Fields, rescind their pledges within the span of six weeks. Fields looks like he’s headed to SEC country, but Levis, who at 6' 4" and 222 pounds posted the highest Nike SPARQ rating among QBs this year and drew a scholarship offer from Florida State, is a nice upside play, while Parsons hasn’t ruled out a Penn State reunion.
The simplest way to highlight how good the Nittany Lions’ class is right now is by pointing to their No. 3 team ranking. Part of the reason they’ve climbed so high is their number of commitments (20), tied with LSU and Houston for the most in the FBS. Their average player rating of 90.32, however, falls short of several teams ranked below them, including No. 19 Michigan (90.34), No. 13 USC (91.51) and No. 12 Clemson (92.09). Other programs with fewer recruits in the fold right now could eclipse them as they stack pledges in the lead-up to signing day, and a major regression from last season’s just-missed-it CFP bid this fall could result in some players looking elsewhere and either de-committing or flipping.
Yet that possibility shouldn’t diminish what Penn State has accomplished so far in this cycle. It’s doing everything it can off the field to beat Michigan and Ohio State on it.