Penn State head coach James Franklin will be welcoming another highly ranked group of recruits Wednesday on national signing day, a class that ESPN.com has rated No. 8 in the nation, with two other rankings just outside of the top 10.
Yet there will be another examination of where the Nittany Lions line up in relation to Ohio State, the team that they’re forever chasing in the Big Ten East, and one that hasn’t shown any drop in attracting players after the Buckeyes’ head coaching change from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day.
Ohio State is ranked No. 2 by ESPN.com, and No. 4 by both 247Sports and Rivals. Its top commitment, wide receiver Julian Fleming (No. 1 ESPN, No. 2 247Sports), grew up 90 miles east of Penn State in Catawissa, Pa., and estimates he has visited Happy Valley more than 20 times. But the Lions lost out when Fleming announced his choice last May 31.
Penn State enters Wednesday with 27 players expected to sign, a class ranked No. 12 by 247Sports and No. 13 by Rivals.
Brian Dohn, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports, said the fact that Penn State loaded up on both sides of the line of scrimmage, with five offensive linemen and seven defensive linemen, shows it wants to close the gap and build depth against the Buckeyes.
“When you’re talking about Penn State, the question when you’re evaluating a player is, does it help them beat Ohio State?” Dohn said. “That’s the question. So you look at the size of some of these offensive linemen and their ability to block Ohio State’s defensive line, that’s what you’re looking at.”
Depending what recruiting service you trust, the Nittany Lions have three four-star offensive linemen (Rivals) or one (ESPN) or none (247Sports). The others are three-star players whom Penn State will develop, as it did with Des Holmes (Cardinal O’Hara) and Mike Miranda, both of whom played significant roles this season as redshirt sophomores.
“It doesn’t mean they’re bad players,” Dohn said. “But you’re chasing Ohio State, who has so much talent across the board that you’re trying to get to that next level. So it’s the job of Penn State to continue to develop these kids. A lot of things have to work out. Not only do they have to develop and be in the weight room and understand, but they’ve got to stay healthy.
“There’s some luck involved in it as well. And Ohio State’s kids may be a little further along ready to come in and play than at a lot of other places.”
The Nittany Lions received a major boost on the line last month when tackle Jimmy Christ of Sterling, Va., flipped from Virginia to Penn State.
Their defensive line group is led by consensus four-star tackles Cole Brevard of Carmel, Ind., the No. 1 prospect in his home state, and Coziah Izzard, of Hyattsville, Md.
Tom Luginbill, national recruiting director for ESPN, agreed that challenging Ohio State means matching the Buckeyes in their areas of strength along the offensive and defensive fronts. He said he doesn’t think the gap between Penn State and Ohio State “is all that wide.”
“I think the difference is depth, what is the drop-off between one guy and the next guy if you’re rotating from series to series or play to play,” he said. “If you’re going to talk about closing a gap … the only way to do that is through successive recruiting classes where you’re bringing in multiple numbers at defensive end and defensive tackle and linebacker so that you minimize that drop-off when you’re rotating players on and off the field.”
The Nittany Lions have their share of four-star commitments led by linebacker Curtis Jacobs, of Owings Mills, Md., ranked No. 44 by 247Sports and No. 67 by ESPN. Dohn said Jacobs comes in "physically ready to go” and could handle himself against older Big Ten linemen.
Dohn also likes the Lions’ wide receivers group led by KeAndre Lambert, of Norfolk, Va., and Norval Black, a transfer from Lackawanna College in Scranton. Theo Johnson, a 6-foot-6, 242-pound tight end from Windsor, Ont., also should make a contribution early.
WR Norval Black, 6-1 1/2, 167, Germantown, Md./Lackawanna (Pa.) College
QB Micah Bowens, 6-1, 185, Las Vegas, Nev./Bishop Gorman
DT Cole Brevard, 6-4, 305, Carmel, Ind./Carmel
DB Ji’Ayir Brown, 6-0, 203, Trenton, N.J./Lackawanna (Pa.) College
OT Jimmy Christ, 6-7, 295, Sterling, Va./Dominion
G Nick Dawkins, 6-4, 300, Allentown, Pa./Parkland
WR Jaden Dottin, 6-3, 185, Suffield, Conn./Suffield Academy
LB Tyler Elsdon, 6-2, 225, Frackville, Pa./North Schuylkill
OT Olu Fashanu, 6-5, 320, Washington, D.C./Gonzaga College
DE Zuriah Fisher, 6-3, 255, Aliquippa, Pa./Aliquippa
RB Caziah Holmes, 5-11, 179, Cocoa, Fla./Cocoa
G Golden Israel-Achumba, 6-4, 320, Hyattsville, Md./DeMatha Catholic
DT Coziah Izzard, 6-2, 275, Hyattsville, Md./DeMatha Catholic
LB Curtis Jacobs, 6-2, 230, Owings Mills, Md./McDonogh School
DB Enzo Jennings, 6-1, 184, Oak Park, Mich./Oak Park
DB Joseph Johnson, 6-3, 180, Chester, Va./Life Christian Academy
TE Theo Johnson, 6-6, 242, Windsor, Ontario/Holy Names
WR KeAndre Lambert, 6-1, 176, Norfolk, Va./Maury
WR Keyvone Lee, 6-0, 223, Clearwater, Fla./Superior Collegiate Academy
WR Malick Meiga, 6-4, 190, Montreal, Quebec/Cegep du Vieux
DE Bryce Mostella, 6-6, 230, Kentwood, Mich./East Kentwood
DT Fatorma Mulbah, 6-3, 270, Harrisburg, Pa./Susquehanna Township
DE Brandon Taylor, 6-2, 250, Lima, Ohio/Lima Senior
OT Ibrahim Traore, 6-5, 290, New York, N.Y./Frederick Douglas Academy
DE Amin Vanover, 6-4, 260, Montvale, N.J./St. Joseph’s Regional
TE Tyler Warren, 6-6, 231, Mechanicsville, Va./Atlee