The Penn State recruiting effort for the 2021 class was hurt by the pandemic, which resulted in an NCAA ban on face-to-face visits with high school prospects and forced the cancelation of some go-to events including the Blue-White spring game and the traditional fall White Out.
That plus the hiring of a new offensive coordinator and three new assistant coaches, who had barely any in-person contact with recruits before everything got shut down last March, made the endeavor even more challenging.
All in all, coach James Franklin was pleased Wednesday that all 15 recruits who had pledged to the program returned their signed national letters of intent with little drama.
“That’s based on transparency and really good conversations with the families and our coaching staff,” Franklin said on a Zoom call with reporters. “A lot of them have been committed to us for a long time. We also went to maybe some nontraditional places for us to find some guys. We had a number of guys who committed to us without ever seeing the place.”
The Nittany Lions stocked up on defensive backs, signing four, with wide receivers — including Malvern Prep star Lonnie White Jr. — taking up three spots. The Lions signed four players from Michigan, or one more than their haul from Pennsylvania.
Franklin said the number of high school prospects from Pennsylvania continues to decline.
“We have not offered a large number of players in the state of Pennsylvania over the last five or six years,” he said. “That makes the guys that we do offer critical to get. When you don’t get them, it magnifies it. There’s no doubt about it.
“We’ve always taken an approach at recruiting regionally. Those things are magnified in years when you can’t get kids on campus. The further the kids have to go can create some challenges in years like this. I felt like the staff did a really good job of being flexible and creative and going to some places that we hadn’t typically gone to.”
Penn State had one of its lower team recruiting rankings in the Franklin era: 21st by 247Sports, 27th by ESPN.com and 28th by Rivals. Its Big Ten rankings were fifth, seventh and eighth, respectively.
Franklin mentioned Harrison Wallace, a wide receiver from Pike Road, Ala., who flipped from Duke and committed last week without ever visiting Happy Valley. Wallace, White and Liam Clifford, the brother of Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, are all four-star talents.
White, who committed to Clemson for baseball as a high school sophomore before opening his recruitment for football, plans to play both sports at Penn State. Franklin and Niittany Lions baseball coach Rob Cooper welcomed White during the program’s signing day video stream.
Franklin said he has spoken with White about the challenges of playing two sports at Penn State.
“At the end of the day, I said, ‘Listen, I’m going to support you in whatever you want to do and your family as well, but we’re going to talk about this,’” Franklin said. “’This is hard to do and I just want to make sure that everybody understands what we’re going to accomplish and how we’re going to accomplish it together, and it’s not going to be easy.
“We’re excited about getting him. I think he’s one of those guys that when he plays baseball, he thinks baseball is his deal. When he plays football, he thinks football is his deal. It just kind of depends on the timing of it. And for me, we’ve had a little bit of [two-sport football players], not a lot of it, because it’s hard to do.”
Toney on All-Big Ten team
Redshirt senior defensive end Shaka Toney, who starred at Imhotep Charter, was named to the All-Big Ten first team in separate votes of coaches and media.
Toney leads the Nittany Lions this season with four sacks and is tied for first in tackles for losses with Jayson Oweh at 6½. Oweh, a redshirt sophomore, joined Toney on the first team in the media vote, and was named second team by the coaches.
Senior safety Jaquan Brisker was voted to the third team by coaches, and senior safety Lamont Wade and redshirt freshman cornerback Joey Porter Jr. made the third team as voted by the media.
Defensive tackles PJ Mustipher and Antonio Shelton, linebacker Brandon Smith and cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields were voted honorable mention by both coaches and media. Porter and Wade made the coaches’ honorable mention list, and Brisker was a media honorable mention.
COVID testing report
Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics announced that only one positive resulted from 1,263 COVID-19 tests performed on athletes during the period from Dec. 5 to 11.