PSU class deemed ‘terrific’
Winning cures a lot of ills.
The consensus heading into the 2017 recruiting cycle was that James Franklin and his Penn State football staff could recruit, but that the Nittany Lions were going to have to show they could get it done on the field to take that next step in interesting and bringing top prep talent into the program.
Usually, it takes a year or so for that impact to be felt. With this year’s Big Ten championship season, though, Penn State seemed to have sped up the process.
“This felt kind of different, the latter half of the season. The whole feeling was completely different from recruits than it was at the beginning of the season,” said Tom VanHaaren, ESPN’s Big Ten recruiting analyst. “(A Penn State source told me) there was a lot less volatility around signing day. It was harder for other schools to come in and steal recruits. With the season ending so strong, there wasn’t anything else for prospects to look around for.”
VanHaaren’s peers were in agreement that the Lions pretty much checked all the boxes with the 21 recruits they brought in this cycle — 17 signed on Wednesday and four others enrolled on Jan. 7, including cornerback Lamont Wade, considered the prize of this class.
“It’s a terrific class,” Prep Football Report publisher Tom Lemming said after ranking Penn State’s class No. 14 in the country. “It really helped getting (Virginia linebacker) Ellis Brooks at the end. It’s loaded with some big-time ballplayers. I really like Sean Clifford.
“Overall, not a bad class. One of the best in the country. They got off to a great start, and they finished really strong, too.”
Major recruiting services rated the class anywhere from 12th to 18th in the country. Penn State landed a four-star quarterback in Clifford. Hulking Pittsburgh Central Catholic guard C.J. Thorpe highlighted a haul of four offensive linemen. In addition to Wade, there were four defensive backs, among them U.S. Army All-American Donovan Johnson of Michigan and long-armed four-star Maryland corner Tariq Castro-Fields. Three much-needed linebackers were part of the class, including early enrollee Brelin Faison-Walden and late addition Brooks, an Under Armour All-American. Also, there was a group of four defensive linemen headlined by intriguing end Yetur Matos and four-star tackle Fred Hansard, who actually flipped to Penn State from Florida.
“I think it’s a very balanced class across the board,” Sean Fitz of Lions247 said. “That’s been an ongoing process for the last three years. They’ve done a nice job of picking their spots and not overextending themselves at different positions.”
“I really love the way Penn State continues to build up their football team,” 247Sports director of recruiting Steve Wiltfong said. “You talk about adding a guy like C.J. Thorpe, and you put him with the class you had the year before, with (Will) Fries, (Mike) Menet and (Connor) McGovern, you can win a lot of games with guys like that up front. Michael Miranda is another tough customer (to add) on the interior of your offensive line. You put Yetur Matos and those D-tackles they got, Fred Hansard and Corey Bolds, and Damion Barber — Fred Hansard and Yetur Matos are high-upside guys. You like what they did in the front seven, getting Ellis Brooks late to add to Brelin and Brailyn (Franklin). In the secondary, you got Lamont Wade, the Gatorade player of the year in Pennsylvania, and then you close with Tariq Castro-Fields, a big, physical guy.”
The return game could reap rewards from this group, as well. Michigan’s K.J Hamler, who missed all of his senior season of high school ball with a knee injury, has the attributes of a special punt returner, Meadville sleeper running back Journey Brown has top-end speed that at the very least could make him dangerous on kickoffs or kick coverage, and Indiana wideout Mac Hippenhammer seems to have the goods to be an asset bringing back either kickoffs or punts.
Hippenhammer and Hamler made up two-thirds of a solid wide receiver haul that also included Cameron Sullivan-Brown. Hippenhammer and Sullivan-Brown are considered sure-handed players with size to give them versatility.
“It’s pretty balanced, overall,” BlueWhite Illustrated recruiting reporter Ryan Snyder said. “They have multiple recruits at nearly every position. I think depth was another priority.”
“They got impact players at the top, and, behind them, they brought in developmental players who will be big-time players in a year or two,” said Rivals.com regional analyst Adam Friedman — Rivals ranked Penn State’s class highest at 12. “They brought in high-level talent, and they’re building depth.”
Wade, Clifford, Thorpe, Hansard, Matos. Brooks and Johnson all were in the top 350 prospects in the class as rated by Jeff Duva’s California-based service, PrepStar, which had the Lions’ class coming in at 17th in the country.
“That’s pretty darn good,” Duva said. “They did a nice job.”
The Lions also struck balance in recruiting regionally. While they weren’t able to lure in five-star running back D’Andre Swift from Saint Joe’s Prep, four-star wideout Mark Webb from Archbishop Wood (both went to Georgia) or Pittsburgh Central Catholic linebacker David Adams and defensive tackle Kurt Hinish (both signed with Notre Dame), they managed to fill their scholarship slots with recruits from nine different states.
“What jumps out to me is Penn State’s ability to spread its wings a little bit and recruit outside of Pennsylvania,” national analyst Brian Dohn of Scout.com said. “It was needed in this class, because Pennsylvania wasn’t particularly deep in talent they could get.”
The three positions that stood out the most were the secondary, linebacker and offensive line. In the defensive backfield, Wade, a borderline five-star corner talent from Clairton, led the way, and was considered by most analysts the player with the best chance to make an impact this fall, probably as a slot corner — he was one of the quartet of January enrollees.
“He’s just a really, really good football player,” VanHaaren said of Wade. “He doesn’t have the ideal size you want out of a corner, but he’s just a football player.”
Wade is considered someone who could see action early as a nickel corner or in the return game and even possibly play a little bit of offense.
He’ll be joined in the fall by Johnson, a player similar to Wade in size but with blazing speed, Castro-Fields, who has more of the length to handle bigger receivers, Georgia’s D.J. Brown and Canada native Jonathan Sutherland. Sutherland is the one pure safety of the group, but, although he is a four-star, he is considered a prospect flying a little under the radar and was compared by one analyst to current Lion all-Big Ten safety Marcus Allen.
Linebacker was considered a major position of need, especially after the transfer of Troy Reeder, the graduations of Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman-White, the fact that Jason Cabinda has just one year of eligibility left and the depth issues that became apparent after a wave of injuries last season. To that end, Franklin and his staff signed three players. Faison-Walden is an early enrollee and Ellis already has college-type size — both could be in the picture to play in the fall; linebacker is one of the few positions where Penn State doesn’t return a great deal.
Brailyn Franklin, meanwhile, is an athlete who played nose tackle in high school but is more the size of a major college safety right now. His upside, though, is enormous.
“I think maybe by his junior year, he’ll be a star on the team,” Patrick Loney, who covers football recruiting for Scout’s FightOnState.com website, said. “I think, personally, he’s going to be a star.”
Penn State also got four defensive linemen, as defensive coordinator Brent Pry was able to bolster the overall talent on that side of the ball at every level. The Lions thought they might have gotten five-star Maryland end Josh Kaindoh to headline the signees on the defensive line, but he held off committing after an official visit and wound up at Florida State. The four-player crop the Lions signed, though, still was very highly-regarded. Matos drew the most attention from scouts as a big-time playmaker from the end who has the frame to get a lot bigger and even more dominant.
“Not enough people are talking about him,” Fitz said. “He’s probably got the highest ceiling in the class.”
For the third year in a row, Penn State was able to help itself on the offensive line. Thorpe is considered the top-rated player of the group, but he, Miranda and Robert Martin all are expected to add a mean streak to what already is on the roster. Des Holmes might be a bit behind in terms of development, but his massive size and quick feet are enough to have fans salivating at his potential.
“C.J. Thorpe is flat-out a beast,” Loney said.
“He’s a consistent offensive lineman with a very strong punch. I think it surprised a lot of people. It surprised me, actually, at the Under Armour Game how effective he was against some of the nationally-known defensive tackles,” Friedman said.
Missing out on Swift, who always seems enamored with playing in the south, Penn State took a shot on Brown — who once ran for 700 yards and 10 touchdowns in one game — for its running back. Most of the recruiting insiders pointed to him as the potential diamond in the rough in this class, because he’s just under 200 pounds but he still has sprinter speed.
“This isn’t the fake 40-yard dash time. This is real speed — a 10.6 100-meter dash,” Friedman said. “I was surprised he didn’t get more publicity and more hype earlier in the process.”
Of course, much of any good recruiting class centers around getting a good quarterback, and, by all accounts, the Lions got one in Clifford. Clifford is considered something of a bigger version of Trace McSorely with more obvious physical quarterbacking tools; he led his high school to the Ohio state championship game after missing about half the regular season because of injury.
He jumped into the class early, though, and was like an extra assistant coach when it came to recruiting players who’d eventually be sharing the locker room with him.
“That’s a tremendous help when you can get a high-caliber prospect like that who’s a verbal commit, other prospects see that, and it’s a feather in your cap, because they know you have a really good core to build around,” Duva said.
Clifford should be a great addition to the Penn State quarterback room, which will have four scholarship players in it for the first time in years.
“The nice thing with Penn State is they’re finally getting their depth back,” Dohn said. “The need for these kids to play early isn’t as strong as it was in the last few years. That’s a sign of the program getting healthy.”
VanHaaren said 2017 was an ideal class to continue what Penn State has been building under James Franklin.
“They’ve already got some good depth, and they’ve got some young starters coming back,” VanHaaren said. “If you look at what Penn State has, the sanctions are off, and they can go out and recruit for depth, now. They can go out and recruit for a year, two years, three years down the road, now, instead of just trying to get bodies there and have some competition. They can go now and try and built that program, and that’s important if they want to take that next step.”