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Does Penn State Still 'Dominate the State' in Pennsylvania Recruiting?

Penn State looks to regain its recruiting momentum with top Pennsylvania prospects.

Even as Penn State has stretched its recruiting territory wider because the in-state talent pool is thinner, coach James Franklin still insisted that Pennsylvania remained its operations base.

"We must do a great job in the state of Pennsylvania," Franklin said on Signing Day last December. "That will always be priority number one."

For the 2021 class, however, Pennsylvania's top recruits have slipped out of Penn State's grasp. On Tuesday, Nolan Rucci, among the state's top prospects and a son of two former Penn State athletes, committed to Wisconsin, continuing a stretch of Pennsylvania prospects heading elsewhere.

Of the six Pennsylvania players named to SI All-American's SI99, none has committed to Penn State. Five are headed to other schools, and one, Gateway High's Derrick Davis Jr., has not announced his decision.

Further, of 247Sports' top 10 players in Pennsylvania (Rucci is No. 1), none has committed to Penn State. Two (quarterback Kyle McCord and receiver Marvin Harrison Jr.) are headed to Ohio State. Penn State's highest-ranked 2021 player from Pennsylvania, according to 247Sports, is receiver Lonnie Walker Jr. at No. 11.

This marks the second consecutive cycle that Penn State lost a recruiting duel for Pennsylvania's top player. Last year, receiver Julian Fleming chose Ohio State.

Penn State has received commitments from a total of six top-10 Pennsylvania prospects over the past two years. And Franklin has said that his program is widening its recruiting territory to compensate for what he called "less and less players [in Pennsylvania] than there was probably 20 years ago." That means fewer in-state offers and more to players outside the region.

Still, for whatever reason, Penn State has been unable to attract the top end of Pennsylvania talent this year. Jeremiah Trotter Jr., son of the former Philadelphia Eagles star and a member of the SI99, is headed to Clemson.

Elliot Donald, a Pittsburgh native whose uncle Aaron is an All-Pro lineman for the Los Angeles Rams, is headed to Pitt, where Aaron played. And Elijah Jeudy, a four-star defensive end from Philadelphia's Northeast High, has committed to Georgia.

Penn State's 2021 class certainly has its share of talented players. Four, in fact, are from Michigan: four-star safety Jaylen Reed, four-star linebacker Jamari Buddin and four-star brothers Kalen and Kobe King.

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But with its limited numbers (13 current commits) and lack of five-star players, Penn State's 2021 class currently ranks No. 33 nationally according to 247Sports, and No. 38 according to Rivals.

SI All-American recently released its list of the nation's top 25 recruiting classes. Seven Big Ten teams, including Maryland and Minnesota, are among them. Penn State is not.

SI All-American's ranking process relied on three key factors: high-end talent, premium positions and team-specific needs.

“We feel acquiring quality at our four premium positions of quarterback, offensive tackle - specifically left tackle - pass-rusher and cornerback is imperative when building a recruiting class, as these are undoubtedly the most valued positions on a roster," wrote Edwin Weathersby II, a former player personnel director at the University of California-Davis who does player evaluations SI All-American. "Those positions are the core spots that require quality talent to build a successful and competitive football team. Programs obtaining high-end commitments to maintain superb depth on their rosters at those specific positions strongly structure themselves to get solid on-field production and contribution from their recruiting class as a whole, since those positions affect winning and losing more than others on the field.”

This spring, Franklin described how his recruiting strategy has changed during the COVID-19 shutdowns and the NCAA dead period that followed. Penn State thrives on the in-person visits, both on campus and off. Among Franklin's best moments is known as the "banzai," when his entire staff greets a recruit and his family at the football office's front door when they arrive.

Penn State couldn't do that this year. There was no spring game to host prospects, no evaluation period to make off-campus visits, no summer camps at which to scout talent. Franklin said he gave virtual hugs on video chats, but it wasn't entirely the same.

"I’m a big believer in first impressions, so when a young man and his family walk into the facility for the first time, I want them to feel like they’re a priority," Franklin said during a May interview with SI.com. "They've invested their time to come visit us. I want to show them that that investment is appreciated and we’re also invested in them. So when they walk through our door, there’s as many as available staff to greet them and welcome them to Penn State. And I know for a lot of people that’s made a huge impact."

"… We'll do virtual calls and meet with staff, so in some ways, it's a 'Banzai.' But it's not like it is walking into the facility."

So what's next for Penn State recruiting? The program has a good start to the 2022 class, which picked up its sixth commitment Tuesday from Philadelphia defensive end Ken Talley. The class, which ranks third nationally according to 247Sports, can help cover a lot of recruiting ground.

Penn State also needs to reposition itself in Pennsylvania. Two of the state's top-10 players (Talley and Drew Shelton) are on board. It's time to draw more.

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