Although we still have a few weeks before classes are officially wrapped up and locked in, the early National Signing Day period gives us a pretty good picture at what each program is bringing in. For Penn State, it’s another Top 15 class — its seventh one in eight years, to be exact. While this class might lack the headline grabbers that the 2022 class had in quarterback Drew Allar and running back Nick Singleton, it doesn’t lack for depth and strengths of its own.
STATEMENT AT LINEBACKER
When Penn State hired Manny Diaz last winter, it was clear he had some big shoes to fill with the departing Brent Pry. He passed his first test — the 2022 season — with flying colors, leading the Nittany Lions defense to a Top 10 finish nationally. His second test — the recruiting piece — went just as well though, if not better. Penn State signed three linebackers: Tony Rojas, Ta’Mere Robinson, and Kaveion Keys. All four-star players, and all prospects that the Nittany Lions identified as key targets early on. Of course there were other linebackers out there that Penn State liked a whole lot too. This isn’t to say that it was Rojas, Robinson, and Keys and that was it on the linebacker board. But that trio has been in the “top-tier priority” category since the recruiting cycle began. Truly impressive stuff that Diaz and Co. were able to reel them in.
Unfortunately for Penn State in the immediate future, none of those guys appear to be plug-and-play from day one. Rojas and Keys, according to Penn State Athletics, are coming in at just 195 pounds. Meanwhile, Robinson hasn’t played a down of competitive football since October 2021 after tearing his ACL and MCL as a junior. In all three situations, it might be asking a lot for them to breakthrough what has become a stronger linebacker depth chart given their improved play throughout the end of the season.
Longterm wise though, this trio has the ability to really shake up the linebacker room. As James Franklin said at his National Signing Day press conference, these guys are what Penn State wants from their linebackers: long, athletic, and quick. It might take some playing around position-wise — the current plan is for Rojas and Keys to stay on the outside, with Robinson manning the middle — but in a few years, there’s absolutely a scenario where Penn State’s three starting linebackers are Rojas-Robinson-Keys. That’s pretty special to get from one class.
Speaking of position groups that made a statement, hello offensive line. I’m not sure there’s another staff member whose stock rose higher than Trautwein’s in 2022. On the field, the offensive line proved consistent and competent despite dealing with injury after injury. Meanwhile off the field, Trautwein is only restocking the room, bringing in a three-man class headlined by two Top 50 prospects in J’ven Williams and Alex Birchmeier who will start their Penn State careers at offensive tackle.
Quick trivia: With Williams being ranked No. 30 overall and Birchmeier ranked No. 44, how many other Top 50 offensive line prospects has Penn State signed since 2000?
Answer: Four — Michael Ment (2016), Eric Shrive (2009), JB Walton (2006), and Chris McKelvy (2000).
Now I realize that list might not jazz anyone up as far as to how it projects for Williams and Birchmeier. Fortunately, the recruiting services have gotten much better at scouting offensive linemen since the 2000s. But I’m just trying to put into context how rare it is to land Top 50 guys in the trenches, let alone two in the same exact class like Trautwein has been able to do here. This, on top of what looks to be a fruitful 2022 offensive line class headlined by Drew Shelton, and Penn State has laid the groundwork for a strong offensive line for years to come.
As for what is next, don’t expect Penn State to just stick with Williams, Birchmeier, and Anthony Donkoh who has plenty of talent in his own right. The Nittany Lions made an offer to former Old Dominion offensive tackle Chimdy Onoh earlier this week and should be in the thick of it for the 6-foot-6, 270-pound Maryland prospect. He’ll certainly garner more offers over the next couple weeks as schools fight for official visits come January, but he’d be a welcomed addition to Trautwein’s already strong 2023 offensive line class.
When James Franklin was hired in January 2014, he said at his introductory press conference that Penn State’s recruiting philosophy would be dominating the state and dominating the region. In the grand scheme of things, that has happened over the years, with the large majority of Penn State players coming from Pennsylvania or surrounding states like Maryland, New Jersey, or Virginia during Franklin’s tenure.
This class was no different, with Pennsylvania and Virginia in particular being well-represented in the 22-person class. Penn State signed six of the top 10 prospects and three of the top four prospects in both states; a nice back in Virginia specifically after getting shutout from the Top 15 prospects (if we don’t doubt Kaytron Allen, who played at IMG in Florida but was originally from VA) in last year’s class.
While PA and VA were good to Penn State, the same can’t be said for New Jersey. What was once argued to be the second-most important state for the Nittany Lions has become something of a wasteland, with 2023 now being the third consecutive cycle that Penn State signed zero Garden State prospects. The last New Jersey product to sign with the Nittany Lions? Defensive end Amin Vanover back in the 2020 class.
For the most part, this isn’t just a trend of Penn State failing with Jersey targets, but it’s also the case of the Nittany Lions just not getting all that involved. They offered 12 New Jersey prospects in 2023, which is quite a bit less than Pennsylvania (21), Maryland (17), and Virginia (17).
What’s to make of it? Right now, not all that much. Obviously, Penn State hasn’t struggled putting together really good recruiting classes without New Jersey’s services, but it was surprising to see that a state that had been so beneficial to Penn State throughout the 2010s has thrown up an oh for the last three recruiting cycles.