Let me preface this by saying that no matter how well Penn State performs on the field or in the recruiting world, there will always be players that get away. It happens to every team, every year. It happens to Nick Saban and Alabama. It happens to Urban Meyer and Ohio State. It has (and will continue to) happen to James Franklin and Penn State, too.
For a variety of factors, no coach can gain a commitment from every single player they want. It simply can't be done. It is a far better exercise to focus on the players you have, than to pine after the ones you don't. That would be the rational and sensible thing to do.
...do you think that we here at Black Shoe Diaries are rational and sensible people?
I didn't think so. While we are fully focused on bringing you the absolute best coverage of our newest Nittany Lions come National Signing Day 2015, that doesn't mean that we can't do a little daydreaming in the present. So join me on a trip down memory lane, as we look back on the Nittany Lions that never were. Grab a tissue, boys and girls. This may get difficult to read at some points.
Brandon Wimbush (Notre Dame)
Position: Dual-Threat QB
High School: St. Peter's Prep (NJ)
247Composite Rank: ★★★★ (0.9784) (#45 player overall) (#3 dual-threat QB)
Wimbush originally committed to Penn State on May 6th. At the time, he was a highly touted, four star recruit who was well-known, but had yet to truly "blow up" in the recruiting world. He was still the jewel of Penn State's recruiting class. He committed on the same day as the man who was to protect his blindside, OT Sterling Jenkins, and everything seemed perfect. He was known to be a very good student who loved the mix of academics and athletics he was going to be exposed to at Penn State. There was a brief scare with a Stanford visit and some legitimate interest from Wimbush's side, but word was that the lengthy application process was enough to deter him from the Cardinal.
When the high school season started, Wimbush caught the attention of anyone who saw his name. He lit up defense after defense, and even did so a few times on national television. His stock was growing, and growing. Meanwhile, Alabama offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier, chose to become the OC at Michigan. The butterfly effect that immediately followed, is well documented. Nussmeier's departure to Alabama led one-time Crimson Tide commit, Ricky Town, to flip his commitment to USC. From there, former Notre Dame commit, Blake Barnett, flipped his commitment to Alabama. A few months later, Brandon Wimbush took his fateful visit to South Bend, chose to flip his commitment during that visit and never looked back (although now we can confirm that there were other forces aside from his own ambition that pushed him to South Bend). For a deeper look at the saga of Brandon Wimbush, you can check out SB Nation's exclusive story on his and teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick's stories.
Adam McLean (Maryland)
High School: Quince Orchard (MD)
247Composite Rank: ★★★★ (0.9419) (#14 defensive tackle) (#2 player in Maryland)
The story of Adam McLean is an interesting one. McLean originally committed to Penn State on April 12 (Blue White Weekend 2014), and immediately became Penn State's biggest cheerleader. From famously shaving "Penn State" into his head for Under Armour's The Opening camp over the summer, to recruiting his fellow Marylanders and nearby Virginians, McLean was as active a commit as they come. On November 18th, everything changed for McLean. Despite his time as the 2015 class' vocal leader, Adam decided to de-commit from Penn State. The true reasoning behind his de-commitment may never be truly known, but Penn State lost a great kid and a great football player here.
Josh Barajas (Notre Dame)
High School: Andrean (IN)
247Composite Rank: ★★★★ (0.9381) (#9 inside linebacker) (#1 player in Indiana)
No one expected Josh Barajas to commit to Penn State when he did. In fact, no one expected Josh Barajas to commit to Penn State at all. With Andrean High School standing tall a mere hour away from South Bend, everyone in the recruiting world expected him to end up at Notre Dame. However, just a few days after finishing up a visit to State College, Barajas chose to pull the trigger for the Nittany Lions. It was a stunning, but welcomed commitment. In the aftermath of his pledge, I caught up with Josh to talk about everything that happened. When I asked him about the difference between Penn State and Notre Dame, he told me, "Notre Dame is a great program and I really like their coaching staff and everything they've been doing and everything they've done. Penn State, I just felt a little more comfortable, that extra little thing at Penn State just made me pull the trigger."
Despite the Fighting Irish looming, and surely focused on making sure they fought back to earn a commitment from their own state's top player, Barajas seemed as committed to the Nittany Lions as could be. Things change though, and so do feelings. Two months later, Barajas chose to flip his commitment from Penn State to Notre Dame. Penn State's biggest surprise of the class finally ended up at the school that he was predicted to end up at, all along.
The Lost Battles
Christian Wilkins (Clemson)
High School: Suffield Academy (CT)
247Composite Rank: ★★★★★ (0.9888) (#24 overall player) (#6 defensive tackle)
Christian Wilkins had one of the quietest recruitments in recent memory, which made it very difficult to get a read on where he was in his decision process. Despite his Marshawn Lynch-esque refusal to speak to the media, it was still generally believed that Wilkins was a Penn State lean, who was simply waiting for the right time to announce his decision. In fact, it was believed that Penn State and Boston College were the two frontrunners, despite the fact that one of the few things he did say publicly was that his visit to Clemson was his favorite. Alas, his January 5th commitment came and went, and Wilkins chose to become a member of the Clemson Tigers. This one really hurt the Nittany Lions, not only because they were losing a player of Wilkins' quality, but because they still had a gaping whole at defensive tackle for their 2015 class at the time.
Jordan Whitehead (Pittsburgh)
High School: Central Valley (PA)
247Composite Rank: ★★★★ (0.9494) (#13 CB) (#1 player in Pennsylvania)
Jordan Whitehead's recruitment was a bit of a seesaw in regards to Penn State. When the 2015 class first started to come together, and after James Franklin famously stated that his goal was to dominate the state, Whitehead was seen as someone who was essentially a lock for Penn State. The Lions needed cornerbacks, he had high interest, and he had visited the school many times. As his recruitment played out, it became clear that two things were very important to Whitehead-early playing time and relationships with the team and the coaches. Penn State can always offer the chance to be part of a very tight-knit group of players, but early playing time was something that proved it would be more and more of a challenge to offer. With established starters Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas in place (despite the fact that Lucas will likely play safety next season), and young players such as Grant Haley and Christian Campbell making plays all over the field, the hopes of earning early playing time as a Penn State cornerback were dimmed more and more each week during the 2014 regular season.
Whitehead found himself narrowed down to a final three in early October. He took four official visits the four previous weeks (in order- Pittsburgh, Ohio State, West Virginia, Penn State), to get his last feel for each school. The general opinion was that Penn State was his family's favorite and that West Virginia was where he had the best relationships. Despite that, Whitehead chose Pitt on October 3rd. He stated that early playing time and relationships were chief reasons for the decision, as well as continuing the Pitt legacy for high schools players from the WPIAL. Whitehead was thought to be briefly available for other schools to throw their hats back in the ring upon Pitt's coaching change, but is still expected to sign with the Panthers on National Signing Day.
Matthew Burrell (Ohio State)
High School: C.D. Hylton (VA)
247Composite Rank: ★★★★ (0.9493) (#107 overall player) (#7 offensive tackle)
Burrell represents a big recruiting battle between Urban Meyer and James Franklin, in which Meyer came out the victor. Burrell gained a reputation during his recruitment as being very flip-floppy, and was very easily caught up in his visits to each school. This led to different top groups quite frequently throughout his recruitment. This exercise continued when Burrell started taking his official visits in September. In order, he visited Ohio State, Florida State, Tennessee, Penn State and LSU. While his top group fluctuated constantly, Penn State always hung around near the top, and Ohio State was almost always one of the top three. Things got interesting after Matthew's visit to Penn State, though.
Following said visit (for the Ohio State Whiteout game), Burrell tweeted out that he was ready to make his announcement that week. Based on the timing, Penn State fans couldn't help but feel optimistic about their chances, and began dreaming of the future offensive line made up of Jenkins, Bates, Gonzalez and Burrell. It was soon found out though (after I was semi-famously tweeted at by Burrell's father), that Matt had changed his mind and would be taking his official visit to LSU instead. The week after his LSU visit, his final top three was reported as Ohio State, Penn State and LSU. In the end, the Buckeyes were his choice. Word is that had he committed when he originally intended to (the week after the PSU visit), the choice was likely going to be Penn State.
Grant Newsome (Michigan)
High School: The Lawrenceville School (NJ)
247Composite Rank: ★★★★ (0.9074) (#21 offensive tackle) (#5 player in New Jersey)
Grant Newsome's recruitment always looked like it was going to come down to Penn State and Michigan in the end, and true to form, those were his final two schools. It was well-known that Newsome was looking for a great education to go with a high profile football career. Naturally, Michigan and Penn State were schools that he fell in love with instantly. Penn State seemed to be in the driver's seat for some time with Newsome, with the Lions receiving the same number of visits at the Wolverines did. As time went on, though, Michigan was the team that looked to pull ahead in the race to obtain Newsome's signature. Towards the end of his process, there was an ever-growing feeling that Penn State may have done just enough on his last visit to snatch him away from then-head coach Brady Hoke, but on June 11th, Grant verbally committed to Michigan.
Penn State coaches never stopped their pursuit of Newsome, especially when Michigan started crashing in the regular season and rumors of Hoke's imminent firing burned like wildfire. Despite the circumstances surrounding the football program, Newsome proved that he truly did commit for the school as opposed to the coach. When Jim Harbaugh was hired, Newsome's commitment was re-affirmed.
The Ones That Never Stood a Chance
Richie Petitbon (Alabama)
High School: Gonzaga (DC)
247Composite Rank: ★★★★ (0.9671) (#64 overall player) (#5 offensive guard)
Here is the best example of a player that Penn State missed out on by losing Bill O'Brien. In speaking with Petitbon, there is no doubt in my mind that he would be ready to sign for Penn State, had the coaching change not occurred. O'Brien's staff made it clear to Richie that he was one of their main priorities for the 2015 class, and he was all in. To this day, when I ask him about Penn State, he replies with some variation of "I wish Coach O'Brien had never left!". The future Alabama guard, for whatever reason, was not pursued by the James Franklin staff.
An effort to pick up where O'Brien left off still could have led Petitbon to picking the Nittany Lions. Despite the coaching change, he was still very high on the team from State College. Whatever the reason was for the staff deciding to look elsewhere, they missed out on a very good player. Petitbon should help anchor a powerful Alabama offensive line for years to come.
Tommy Hatton (North Carolina)
High School: St. Joseph's Regional (NJ)
247Composite Rank: ★★★★ (0.9215) (#4 center) (#4 player in New Jersey)
Hatton was initially being recruited as a guard by Bill O'Brien and his staff. I spoke to Tommy quite a bit, early on in his recruitment. He was extremely interested in Penn State, and coveted an offer from the Lions more than any other. He told me that the O'Brien staff had informed him that he was on his way to earning said offer, but they had to sort some things out first (remember, the scholarship restrictions were still alive and well at this point). Once James Franklin took over, Hatton told me that he was still very high on Penn State, especially because Franklin recruited him while at Vanderbilt, as well.
From there, for whatever reason, the staff simply never decided to offer Hatton. Despite South Carolina being the most popular Crystal Ball pick (100%), Hatton decided to commit to the Tar Heels on June 13th.
**All photos used in this article are courtesy of our friends at Lions247 and 247Sports.**