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PSU lands LB recruit on big day

There was a feeling the noon kickoff on Saturday might take a little bit of the shine off of Penn State’s biggest recruiting game of the season, even with the white-out and the capacity crowd.

If that was the case, it was awfully hard to tell. The program hosted one of its biggest groups of prospects ever and even landed a verbal commitment from a top class of 2017 linebacker on the day of its 28-16 loss to Michigan.

“This was the biggest one of the year for Penn State, no doubt, and it was on par with the past weekend’s they’ve had with Michigan and the past weekends they’ve had with Ohio State,” said Sean Fitz, who covers Penn State football recruiting for the Lions 247 website. “I don’t have an exact number, but there were a lot of kids down there.

“It was packed down there on the sidelines, and it was a really good showing, particularly for the 2017 and 2018 classes.”

Fitz pointed out that the 150 number is a little bit deceiving, because it includes kids from high schools with which Penn State has a good relationship or friends of players the Lions are recruiting. However, Fitz said there were around 40-50 prospects in the stadium who Penn State actually is recruiting, and that’s still a terrific number for a Lion game.

While it was difficult to get an exact head count or to confirm every blue-chipper in attendance by press deadline, many of those expected to be on hand were ranked very highly in their class. In addition to about half of their 2016 committed recruits, Penn State had four-star Tennessee safety Joejuan Williams in on an official visit, were expected to get a visit from top JUCO safety Kyzir White and got a big, unexpected lift late when suburban Philadelphia quarterback Brandon McIlwain – a South Carolina verbal – let it be known that he was coming up.

The 2017 ranks were expected to turn out about a dozen or so players already holding Lion scholarship offers, including quarterback commit Sean Clifford, linebackers Dylan Rivers and Anthony Jordan, offensive linemen Robert Hainsey, Micah Clark, C.J. Thorpe and Isaiah Wilson, defensive ends Yetur Matos and Damion Barber and defensive tackle Cam Spence. All are four-star-level prospects.

Saturday’s game even attracted Maryland linebacker Nathan Proctor, who has offers from schools like Florida and Georgia but not yet one from Penn State.

Rivers made it a productive game even before kickoff by joining Clifford and committing.

“Very proud and thankful to announce my commitment to Penn State University! #WeAre #LBU,” Rivers wrote on Twitter around 10 a.m.

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Rivers is ranked among the top 250 prospects in his class and is a four-star recruit. Fitz recently predicted both he and Matos eventually would pledge to the Lions, although he was surprised Rivers announced so quickly. Fitz said Rivers is a quality get.

“He’s a heck of a football player, first and foremost,” Fitz said of Rivers. “He’s a guy that you look at as an outside linebacker, but he’s also a tight end and can run the ball at the high school level. These hard-nosed guys are the guys that you’re looking for to fill out your linebacking corps. He can play the box linebacker, which, if you look at the future, they need guys that can fill that role. He’s athletic enough to play in space, but he also can play a traditional linebacker and, looking at the 2016 class, they don’t really have that guy just now.”

Penn State’s coaches formed a relationship with Rivers very early in the process and appeared to be neck and neck with Virginia Tech in pursuit of his services before the news came out that Hokies coach Frank Beamer was retiring, opening the door for the Lions to close things. Clemson and Arizona also had offered him.

“Rivers is extremely physical and strong. He shows good overall athleticism and runs well. Rivers is very aggressive and relentless on the field. He plays fast, but under control. Rivers also takes good angles when pursuing the football and is a very good tackler,” Scout.com analyst Michael Clark wrote. “He needs to continue to work on his lateral movement, but he will make an instant impact at the college level and has the potential development a great player.”

Penn State already has a quarterback in its 2016 recruiting class, New York’s Jake Zembiec. The Lions, though, would take a second signal-caller in this class or the next one, and McIlwain, a tremendous athlete, fits the bill.

Also a tremendous baseball player, he was heavily involved with the Lions before committing to the Gamecocks in December. With Steve Spurrier stepping down as coach, McIlwain has decided to look at his options.

“When you have a talent like that, you’re going to want to fill out your quarterback roster sooner rather than later. They talked about taking a second quarterback in 2017, but if you can get that second quarterback in 2016, maybe you can allocate some scholarships differently,” Fitz said. “It’s a tricky situation. Quarterbacks can be very temperamental. But, if (Christian) Hackenberg leaves, then you are down to (Trace) McSorley, (Tommy) Stevens and Zembiec in the spring.”

Penn State only appears to have a half-dozen scholarships still available for 2016, but it looks like at least one is earmarked for the secondary. Williams is a four-star talent who also is considering LSU and appears likely to leave his home state. White is a Pennsylvania player committed to West Virginia, where his older brother, NFL Draft first-round pick Kevin White, played – the Mountaineers’ struggles this season have kept Penn State in contention.

The Lions also are still involved with top defensive backs Jordan Fuller and Damar Hamlin.

Some fans think a loss like Saturday’s might turn recruits off to a school. Fitz said that’s not typically the case.

“They’re looking at the crowd. They’re looking at the atmosphere. They’re looking at the product on the field less so,” Fitz said. “You keep getting those guys on campus. You keep forging those relationships. There didn’t seem to be a lot of momentum with Penn State recruiting right now, but I think there’s a lot under the surface.”

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