Every Penn State fan remembers James Franklin’s introductory press conference.
It marked a new era for Penn State football, and in particular, it put the rest of the Big Ten on notice that the Nittany Lions were no longer going to remain dormant.
Perhaps the most memorable part of Franklin’s press conference were three words that found themselves t-shirts on every Penn State website for the next six months.
“Dominate the state.”
Franklin laid out his plan for the Nittany Lions to recruit with the best programs in the country, and it started with sealing off the borders of Pennsylvania, something Penn State had struggled to do for much of the century.
His words paid dividends immediately. In 2015, Franklin’s first full recruiting cycle, the Nittany Lions signed six of the top seven players in the state. Among that group were Saquon Barkley, John Reid and Ryan Bates, three players who were cornerstones of the 2016 Big Ten Championship team.
The in-state success continued with the 2016 class, as Penn State went out west to nab Miles Sanders, a five-star recruit and the top player in the state. The Nittany Lions also landed the signature Michal Menet, the No. 2-ranked player in the state, as well as seventh-ranked Connor McGovern. All of whom played integral roles throughout their Penn State careers.
In the 2017 cycle, some cracks began to show. Yes, the Nittany Lions landed impact players and highly touted recruits in Lamont Wade and C.J. Thorpe as well as potential hidden gems in Des Holmes and Journey Brown to go along with Damion Barber, but big names started to get away.
Georgia came in-state to poach D’Andre Swift and Mark Webb and Notre Dame grabbed Pittsburgh four-stars Josh Lugg and David Adams.
Franklin steadied the ship in 2018 with the addition of can’t miss prospect Micah Parsons and highly touted tight end Zack Kuntz, in addition to a strong group of four-stars containing Jahan Dotson, Jesse Luketa, Juice Scruggs and Nick Tarburton. Despite missing out on Phil Jurkovec (who has since transferred) to Notre Dame, it appeared all was well again in the Keystone State.
After a disappointing on-field season in 2018, Penn State inked a solid crop of PA prospects from what was, as a whole, an underwhelming 2019 class. Despite top-ranked Andrew Kristofic following former teammate Jurkovic to ND, PSU signed Keaton Ellis and Joey Porter Jr., both of whom played as true freshmen. Penn State did, however, miss out on Harrisburg’s Andre White Jr., who headed to Texas A&M, and the Nittany Lions did not offer Warwick’s Hayden Rucci, a legacy prospect, which could play a factor down the line.
Things went a bit awry in the 2020, which has raised the eyebrows of more than a few fans and high school coaches in the area. Long thought to be the heavy favorites for Julian Fleming, the No. 1-ranked receiver in the country who grew up and played up 90 minutes from State College, Penn State could not close the deal. Worse yet, the star wide receiver headed west to play for Ohio State, which has recruited as well as any program in the nation under Ryan Day.
The state’s second-ranked prospect, Michael Carmody, also eluded the Lions as the Fighting Irish once again dipped into the Pittsburgh area to land a four-star tackle.
Penn State signed four players: Zuriah Fisher, Tyler Elsdon, Fatorma Mulbah and Nick Dawkins, from in-state in the 2020 class, but none of the four were inside of the top 300 in the industry composite rankings.
Now we turn our attention to the current class, which graduates in 2021 and is ripe for the picking for the Nittany Lions. The 2021 class in Pennsylvania is as good as any in recent history. While no one has put pen to paper, Penn State is off to a sluggish start.
The Nittany Lions struck out while pursuing a loaded class from St. Joe’s Prep in Philadelphia. Five-star quarterback Kyle McCord committed to the Buckeyes along with four-star wideout Marvin Harrison Jr. Meanwhile, four-star linebacker Jeremiah Trotter is committed to Clemson.
Penn State is still in pursuit of five-star legacy recruit Nolan Rucci, whose father Todd played under Joe Paterno and was a second-round pick in the 1993 NFL Draft. Rucci is ranked No. 14 overall in the 247Sports composite rankings and is thought to be consider Penn State and Clemson, among others.
Another big-time recruit with Penn State ties is Gateway’s Derrick Davis Jr. Davis Jr., who plays for the programs that Terry Smith turned into a powerhouse, has a close personal relationship with Smith, who he has known all of his life.
Four-star defensive end Elliot Donald appears to set follow in the footsteps of his uncle Aaron at Pitt, while Northeast High School’s Elijah Jeudy, another four-star defensive end, recently committed to Georgia despite the best efforts of new PSU staff member Deion Barnes, a Northeast alum.
The Nittany Lions are also still in pursuit of Pitt pledge Nakhi Johnson, a defensive end, as well as safety Donovan McMillon. Both Johnson and McMillon are from the Pittsburgh area and the latter recently released a top-10 list with Penn State in it.
If Franklin can land Rucci, Davis and McMillon, the in-state class will likely be considered a success, but there’s a lot of meat left on that bone.
The talent splurge continues if you look ahead to the 2022 class as well. According to 247Sports, Pennsylvania is home to seven players in the top 130 in the country. That list is headlined by Imhotep Charter’s Enai White, a defensive end with offers from across the country.
All seven players have Penn State offers and the Nittany Lions are seemingly off to a good start with each, most of whom have visited. The list includes four prospects from Philadelphia, an area where Penn State has struggled mightily of late. In addition to White, the Philly group includes Keenan Nelson Jr., a defensive back from St. Joe’s Prep, which hasn’t sent a player to Penn State since John Reid, as well as Northeast defensive end Ken Talley and Neuman Gorretti linebacker Anthony Johnson.
The other three players hail from Central Pennsylvania. First is wideout Mekhi Flowers, a rangy athlete who could play safety at the next level and is from Steelton-Highspire just outside of Harrisburg, the same high school as Jordan Hill. Then there’s twichy wide receiver Anthony Ivey, a menace with the ball in his hands from Manheim Township, just down the road from Rucci’s Warwick High School. Finally, you have Nick Singleton, a dynamic running back from Governor Mifflin (Reading) High School who Penn State has been on since his freshman year.
As the Buckeyes continue to extend the talent gap between themselves and the rest of the Big Ten, it’s imperative for James Franklin that his team’s keep in touch. While Penn State has done a great job finding talent elsewhere thanks in no small part to the addition of JaJaun Seider, Franklin must get back to dominating the state or risk being left in the dust.