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Penn State finds success in the transfer portal with three newcomers in starting lineup

Defensive end Arnold Ekibetie (Temple), guard Eric Wilson (Harvard), and defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo (Duke) have provided immediate help in the Lions' 3-0 start.

Penn State's Arnold Ebiketie hits Wisconsin's Graham Mertz as he throws during their game on Sept. 4 in Madison, Wis.
Penn State's Arnold Ebiketie hits Wisconsin's Graham Mertz as he throws during their game on Sept. 4 in Madison, Wis.Read moreMorry Gash / AP

Arnold Ebiketie was a standout defensive end at Temple but knew in his heart that he could make an impact at a Power Five school. Eric Wilson wanted to find a place to play football after the Ivy League canceled Harvard’s 2020 season. Derrick Tangelo felt he had more in the tank after four seasons at Duke.

All three players emerged last offseason from the NCAA transfer portal and landed at Penn State, where they have earned starting roles for the sixth-ranked Nittany Lions and provided immediate help to a team that defeated nationally-ranked Wisconsin and Auburn in the season’s first three weeks.

In all, coach James Franklin welcomed six players from FBS schools to his program for the 2021 season, with running back John Lovett (Baylor) and cornerbacks Johnny Dixon (South Carolina) and A.J. Lytton (Florida State) joining Ebiketie, Wilson, and Tangelo. Dixon and Lytton are juniors, the rest are graduate transfers.

That’s not a route Franklin has taken during his time at Penn State. The Nittany Lions have tapped into the strong junior-college football program at Lackawanna, located in Scranton, for players. Their starting safeties, Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown, are both Lackawanna graduates.

The coach said Wednesday night he “wouldn’t necessarily say I’m a huge fan and believer” in the transfer portal, but he admits it has its benefits.

“It’s really to fill immediate needs,” he said. “Maybe you have an injury. Maybe you have a guy that just needs another year of development, and it probably makes more sense for him to be in a complementary role for a year and then be a starter the next year. It helps you with that. It gets some immediate impact guys from a veteran, experienced, maturity standpoint.”

Ebiketie, one of three transfers from Maryland, a traditionally fertile recruiting area for Franklin, made an immediate impact in his first game in a Penn State uniform with seven tackles including two for losses, one sack, one quarterback hurry, and a blocked field goal.

After earning second-team All-AAC honors last season when he led Temple with 8½ tackles for losses, four sacks, and three forced fumbles, Ebiketie felt it was time to move on.

“I had accomplished a lot for Temple,” he said earlier this month. “I’m a big competitor. I’m always looking for more. I felt like it would be best for me to enter the transfer portal and go to a place where I could compete and expand my game a little bit going against some other guys playing at a high level.”

Franklin calls Ebiketie “an awesome young man.”

“He’s very appreciative of the experience that he’s having at Penn State,” he said. “He’s always got a huge smile on his face. He’s a mature young man. He’s great with his teammates, but he’s also got a really good way with the staff. So we love him, he’s been a great pickup.”

Wilson, who won the starting left guard job following the Wisconsin game, took the long route from Harvard to Penn State. After the Crimson’s 2020 season was canceled, he and some classmates took some time off in Bethany Beach, Del., before heading to Nashville where they took virtual classes, worked out, and watched college football on Saturdays.

Wilson initially committed to Auburn but changed his mind after head coach Gus Malzahn was fired at the end of last season.

“That was a weird experience going through the [transfer] process and being committed to a coach there and that coaching staff leaving, and then having to restart the whole recruiting process in the portal again,” he said Wednesday. “I’m not a fan of being in the portal and the uncertainty.”

Wilson said that after Penn State showed interest, he spoke with Franklin and offensive line coach Phil Trautwein. He said Trautwein talked about “not what made him like me but what made him think he could make me better.”

“That was a huge part of why I chose Penn State,” he said.

Tangelo, who played in 45 games with 27 starts during his career at Duke, has started at defensive tackle for his three games with the Lions, but Nittany Nation took notice of him when the 308-pounder caught speedy Auburn running back Jarquez Hunter with a touchdown-saving tackle at the Lions’ 10. The Tigers wound up turning the ball over on downs at the 2.

Tangelo, whose nickname is “Congo,” played his high school ball in Potomac, Md., at the Bullis School, the alma mater of two former Nittany Lions — linebacker Cam Brown and tight end Jonathan Holland — and said Penn State “was always a dream of mine.”

“I always looked up to them,” Tangelo said. “They always gave me advice. I had a lot of respect for them. That’s what drew me to the program. Seeing the environment and meeting Coach Franklin when I was a young high school up-and-coming player, it really led me to want to come and be a part of Penn State.”

Tangelo said he wasn’t recruited by Franklin in high school. Once he hit the transfer portal after his fourth season at Duke and saw Penn State had interest, he knew he wanted to go there.

Franklin called Tangelo “an unbelievable fit in our locker room.”

“He’s got a bunch of personality, interacts with the players and the coaches really well,” he said. “I think both AK [Ebiketie] and Congo have really done a good job of fitting in here, culturally, to how we do things and they’ve been great from that perspective.”