MOST POWERHOUSE programs would have little reason to celebrate a recruiting class that experts ranked no better than 19th in the nation. But at Penn State, which is coming off its fourth losing season in five years, there's more to this year's class than its ranking. That's because coach Joe Paterno's 19 signees include two of the nation's top prospects, wide receiver Derrick Williams and cornerback Justin King--speedy playmakers who should add desperately needed punch to the Nittany Lions' offense (104th out of 117 Division I-A schools in '04) and special teams. "There isn't as much balance, but I think we helped ourselves where we had to help ourselves," says Paterno, 78. "We've had these kinds of players in the past, but we just fell a little short in finding them the last couple of years."
Penn State's lack of game-breaking talent was especially apparent last season, when the offense's ineptitude negated the efforts of a stellar defensive unit that allowed the fifth-fewest points in the nation. As the team stumbled to a 4--7 finish, Paterno's detractors pressed their criticism of his recruiting approach, which had emphasized getting early commitments from prospects, then sitting them for at least a year after they arrived. "Joe's always going to play the better kid," says defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, "[but] if a kid has been loyal to Joe, and everything else is even, then Joe has given the nod to the kid who's been with the program for a while."
But with freshmen busting out at places like USC, Michigan and Oklahoma, that approach is a tough sell to today's recruits. "Elite players want to know they can make an impact as freshmen," says Allen Wallace of SuperPrep and scout.com. "Penn State's been trying to sign these kids for years. Now [the Nittany Lions] have to show them that what's happening in Los Angeles can happen in Happy Valley."
Says Paterno, "It was pretty easy for us to say, 'Look, we've got a pretty solid football team. We have everything but a few playmakers. It's an opportunity for you to come in and help us get back to the top.'"
The jewel of this year's class is Williams, considered by some experts to be the nation's top recruit. A 6'1", 185-pound flier from Roosevelt High, in Greenbelt, Md., he's a Reggie Bush type who rolled up more than 3,000 all-purpose yards as a senior. King, a two-way star at Pittsburgh's Gateway High, rushed for 1,901 yards and 30 touchdowns last fall. Both graduated early and are enrolled at Penn State this semester, and their presence has already made a difference: In a signing-day surprise, Jerome Hayes of Bayonne, N.J., a top 20 prospect at linebacker, announced he was headed to Happy Valley.
The 2005 season looks promising for the Nittany Lions if JoePa turns loose his freshmen. "One of the good things about the cottage industry of recruiting is that the kids get so much exposure that they're not blindsided by all the attention they get as freshmen," Paterno says. He also thinks they arrive game-ready. "I mean, they can read a two-deep zone. They're just much more competent than they used to be, and they have a lot more poise. It won't be all Greek to them."
In addition to Penn State's Derrick Williams and Justin King, these five signees could make immediate marks next fall
KEVIN GRADY, RB, Michigan
Already enrolled, the alltime Michigan state high school rushing leader (8,431 yards) practiced with the Wolverines during Rose Bowl week.
MARLON LUCKY, RB, Nebraska
The North Hollywood, Calif., product, who turned down USC, could become the best Cornhuskers back since Ahman Green.
EUGENE MONROE, T, Virginia
Offensive linemen frequently redshirt to bulk up, but the 6'6" 318-pounder from South Plainfield, N.J., already has an NFL body.
MELVIN ALAEZE, DE, Maryland
At Randallstown (Md.) High the 6'2" 280-pounder also saw time at defensive tackle, tight end, fullback, tailback and punter.
RYAN PERRILLOUX, QB, LSU
He doesn't lack confidence. "I could definitely be a Heisman winner next year," the brash Louisianan told USA Today, "or at least a candidate."