Keon Wylie possessed the athleticism and the skills to become a good defensive end at Imhotep Charter High School, but he wanted something more. That’s when his work ethic clicked into overdrive.
He started hitting the weights. He read about nutrition and changed his diet to put on good weight. His father helped him by developing beneficial workouts and exercises. And he worked diligently with the Panthers’ defensive line coach to learn techniques on stopping the run and being an all-around player.
The work has paid off for Wylie, who will join a fellow Public League player, 6-foot-2, 220-pound edge rusher Ken Talley of Northeast, and a Catholic League player, 6-4, 235-pound linebacker Abdul Carter of La Salle College, in signing national letters of intent Wednesday with Penn State.
It will mark the first Public League players to be attracted by coach James Franklin and his staff since Imhotep defensive end Shaka Toney in 2016, and the first Catholic Leaguer to play football for the Nittany Lions since Cardinal O’Hara offensive lineman Des Holmes in 2017.
Two other local players of note expected to sign with the Lions are 6-5, 270-pound offensive tackle Drew Shelton of Downingtown West and 6-foot, 205-pound safety Tyrece Mills, who played his high school ball at Northeast and is a transfer from Lackawanna College.
Wylie, a Rivals 4-star recruit who is likely to be an outside linebacker with the Nittany Lions, has built himself up to 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, quite an improvement from his sophomore season when he weighed 175.
“I just started to take the weight room more serious, doing more different types of reps, eating a lot more healthy things,” Wylie said in an interview last week. “By the time the  spring season came, I was 220 pounds. The most I was during that span was 225, but then I changed my eating up again and I lost weight. Then during the springtime and different things, I did a lot of conditioning and got down to 210.
“I’ve been pretty happy about the work I’ve put in because that work has really paid off. My dad knows how to put weight on people, take weight off. He does a lot of different exercises and weightlifting things. He’s got a gym in his basement and I used to do different things with him in his basement.”
Imhotep coach Devon Johnson appreciates the work Wylie has put in for football with his weightlifting habits and his diet and nutrition. He said Wylie posted double-digit numbers in sacks and tackles for loss this season and set a personal best in tackles while improving against the run.
He was particularly impressed last year during the coronavirus shutdown, saying Wylie never missed a workout, first when it was virtual and later when smaller groups could train together.
“He never missed a day,” Johnson said. “He constantly worked out at his home and back in the gyms when they were starting to open back up again. He would do D-line workouts with his group that he would call on his own and really just get after it in that aspect. So he really just used it as a time to learn the playbook a little bit more, work on his technique, and just stay focused, honestly.”
The Philadelphia public schools could not play a 2020 fall season but did play four or five games in the spring. Johnson said Wylie finished the shortened season with more than 10 sacks, including five in the finale against rival Northeast.
“You just saw his hard work pay off,” he said.
Johnson also values the leadership and the example set by Wylie, who has served as team captain in each of the last two seasons.
“That’s a players’ vote, so that just shows the confidence and respect that they have for him,” Johnson said. “He’s a mild-mannered kid. Once he starts to feel comfortable, his personality opens up and you get to know him. He’s funny and always positive and he’s a leader.
“But when it’s time to turn it on, he’s a dog on the football field, one of the biggest competitors that we have on our team, and that’s not just on Friday and Saturday nights. That’s every single day, whether it’s in the weight room, practice, film hours, he’s always trying to be the best. He’s one of the favorite players I’ve ever coached.”
Wylie describes his personality as “chill … a chill person, easygoing, not hard to get along with.”
Penn State connections
Wylie, who received scholarship offers from more than 20 schools, said he has a strong relationship with Franklin and his staff. That includes cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, who recruits southeastern Pennsylvania, and graduate assistant Deion Barnes, a Northeast High graduate who played defensive end for the Lions.
“I talk to Coach Deion often, more often than a lot of the other coaches,” he said. “I think we just connect about more than football. It’s a person-to-person type relationship. We both grew up in the same city, so we know what’s going on. We can connect off different things.”
Wylie said he also speaks with Toney, who became an All-Big Ten defensive end at Penn State and now plays in the NFL with Washington.
“I look up to Shaka,” he said. “He’s helped me, just giving me different tips on pass rushing, run stopping, a defensive stance. He’s helped me out a lot.”
Brian Dohn, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports, has seen Wylie several times this season.
“He is electric at the snap,” Dohn said. “He runs well. He can change direction. But the thing about Keon is, he’s a really hard worker, puts in a lot of work. He’s physical. He’s aggressive. He plays really hard from snap to snap. You don’t really see him take plays off. He is a very prideful kid in wanting to do well.”
Dohn feels Penn State also will really enjoy having Talley and Carter on its team.
“What really stood out about Ken to me was, he’s a lot quicker than I thought he would be, good at the snap, really good with his hands,” he said. “He’s willing to take on double teams and fight off of them. He’s a factor in the run game and he can also get into the backfield. His energy level and his ability to use his hands really stood out to me.”
“Abdul has all the tools to be absolutely amazing. He can run [the 40-yard dash] in the 4.5s. He’s got length, so you can play him as a linebacker, you can play him as an edge, you can put him at defensive end and have him go get the quarterback. There’s a ton to love about Abdul. I don’t use the word ‘freak’ very often, but athletically he is freakish with his size and the way he can run.”