It probably should have been a slam dunk for Penn State and head coach James Franklin.
The Nittany Lions were in the thick of the recruiting battle for 6-foot-7, 290-pound offensive tackle Nolan Rucci of Warwick High School in Lititz, Pa., the top-rated prospect in Pennsylvania by 247Sports. His father, Todd, played at Penn State from 1990 to ’92, and his mother, Stacy, competed in field hockey there.
When Rucci announced his college choice Tuesday, however, the nod went to Wisconsin, where his older brother, Hayden, is a redshirt freshman tight end.
The year of the coronavirus has been a bumpy recruiting ride for Penn State in its home state. Eight of the top 10 high school seniors in Pennsylvania have selected the colleges where they will continue their football careers in 2021, and just one — athlete Lonnie White Jr. of Malvern Prep — has chosen the Lions.
Ohio State, which received commitments from St. Joseph Prep’s high-octane duo of quarterback Kyle McCord and wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., has two of the top 10, as does PSU archrival Pittsburgh. Another St. Joe’s Prep product, linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr., committed to Clemson, and defensive end Elijah Jeudy of Northeast is headed to Georgia.
The Nittany Lions, who never have been ranked lower than 20th in the 247Sports team rankings or lower than 21st by Rivals since Franklin took over in 2014, are sitting at 34th in the 2021 recruiting derby, while Rivals has them 38th. The Lions have 13 commitments to date.
However, Brian Dohn, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports, said Penn State’s recruiting performance has been affected by two occurrences: the pandemic and the turnover on Franklin’s coaching staff. Four new assistants have been added since the end of the 2019 regular season.
“Penn State has been hurt more with not having kids visit campus than anybody else I can think of,” Dohn said Wednesday. “One of the things you saw early on in the recruiting cycle was kids' committing to schools that they had visited, or were local for Maryland and places like that. You’ve got a lot of local kids. For Penn State, local is three or four hours away.”
Dohn said the Nittany Lions' Blue-White spring game annually draws more than 60,000 spectators and provides an environment that attracts prospective targets. In the summer, Franklin hosts the “Lasch Bash,” bringing elite recruits together. Neither activity took place this year, and coaches were not allowed in-person contact with recruits.
Of the assistant coaches lost from 2019, offensive line coach Matt Limegrover was not asked to return, and offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne (head coach at Old Dominion), wide receivers coach Gerad Parker (offensive coordinator at West Virginia) and defensive line coach Sean Spencer (same position with the New York Giants) left for better opportunities.
“That was huge because recruiting is so sped up that kids had developed relationships with some of these coaches,” Dohn said. "Sean Spencer was an awesome recruiter for the D-line, so now you bring somebody in who they don’t know and can that person be as dynamic as Sean Spencer? So now, it’s two things you’re fighting against.
“Penn State does a better job than anywhere of when kids are on campus, making them feel at home, making them feel like family and really getting to know the coaches. I don’t care how many Zooms you do, there’s nothing like in person. James Franklin and his staff are really impressive in person.”
Penn State has signed its share of No. 1 prospects from Pennsylvania: running back Miles Sanders in 2016, safety Lamont Wade in 2017, and linebacker Micah Parsons in 2018. Cornerbacks Keaton Ellis (247Sports) and Joey Porter Jr., (ESPN.com) were ranked No. 2 in the state by different websites in 2019.
But the Lions lost out on wide receiver Julian Fleming of Catawissa, Pa., the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2020 class according to ESPN.com, who was only 90 minutes from campus but chose Ohio State. Rucci is now at another Big Ten school.
Two of the state’s top 10 seniors in the class of 2021 have yet to commit. Neumann-Goretti safety Tysheem Johnson, ranked ninth by Rivals, is believed to have narrowed his choices to two — Mississippi and Arizona State.
Another safety, Derrick Davis Jr., of Monroeville, near Pittsburgh, is No. 2 on ESPN.com’s list. The Nittany Lions are among the front-runners, but they are joined by Ohio State, Clemson and Louisiana State, with Georgia and Pitt still alive.
On the positive side, Penn State is off to a good start with the Class of 2022. Of its six commitments, three are from Pennsylvania: a pair of four-star players — offensive tackle Drew Shelton of Downingtown West and defensive end Ken Talley of Northeast — and three-star quarterback Beau Pribula of York.
“I think part of it’s the cycle,” Dohn said. “It’s easy to say, ‘Hey, Penn State’s got to recruit better,’ but there’s always reasons for it. It’s what are the circumstances going into why maybe they’re not getting some kids that people are used to Penn State getting.”