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Penn State coaches thrilled with signing 3 high school players out of Philadelphia after a long drought

The Nittany Lions hadn't signed a Public League player since 2016 or a Catholic League player since 2017, leading to a strained relationship with city coaches, but did much better this year.

Imhotep Charter's linebacker Keon Wylie (1) gathers with his teammates at the conclusion of a PIAA 5A quarterfinal football game against Cathedral Prep in Bellefonte, Pa. on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Wylie has committed to Penn State.
Imhotep Charter's linebacker Keon Wylie (1) gathers with his teammates at the conclusion of a PIAA 5A quarterfinal football game against Cathedral Prep in Bellefonte, Pa. on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Wylie has committed to Penn State.Read moreFor the Inquirer / RALPH WILSON

When Penn State assistant coach Terry Smith took over recruiting responsibilities for Philadelphia a little more than a year ago, he saw quickly that he had to mend some fences with the city’s high school football coaches.

The Nittany Lions had been in a drought when it came to attracting Public and Catholic League players to Happy Valley. It was obvious to Smith that something was wrong just looking at last year’s class, when five top prospects from the city all took their talents somewhere else.

With the help of graduate assistant coach Deion Barnes, a former Penn State player from Philadelphia, Smith got to work.

“We went to the coaches themselves and really just confessed that we had dropped the ball in Philadelphia, and that we had to do better in the city limits,” Smith, the cornerbacks coach and the program’s defensive recruiting coordinator, said Wednesday after the Nittany Lions signed 23 players to national letters of intent in the 2022 class.

“We made a conscious effort to own our mistakes and made a conscious effort to be better, and we got better there. We landed three kids; we’re happy with those guys and we’re going to continue to pound the streets of Philadelphia and try to get the best kids to stay here in the state.”

The three city recruits all project for the Lions as linebackers: Abdul Carter from La Salle College High, Ken Talley from Northeast, and Keon Wylie from Imhotep Charter. Talley and Wylie are the first signees from the Public League since Imhotep’s Shaka Toney in 2016, and Carter is the first from the Catholic League since Des Holmes of Cardinal O’Hara in 2017.

Smith said it took “tons of phone calls, tons of text messages, tons of Zoom calls, just direct communication and answering tough questions” to make things right.

“Oftentimes a coach wants to know why we haven’t offered their kid and maybe Texas A&M has offered their kid,” he said. “We just had to own our mistakes and mend those relationships. I think over the course of this year, we’ve done a fantastic job with that. I think our relationships are great.”

Penn State head coach James Franklin, a native of Langhorne, said that recruiting the city is very important to him and to the program.

“If you look at the number of players coming out of the state every single year, Philadelphia has really grown,” he said. “The coaches are doing a great job there. There’s some really strong high school programs, Imhotep obviously is one that’s a great example of that in terms of being highly successful on the field, doing a great job of coaching these guys. Then also, they’ve had a large number of Division I prospects that have been able to go on and be successful.”

Imhotep head coach Devon Johnson said earlier this month that he felt Penn State coaches “weren’t doing a great job” of recruiting players from his and other Philadelphia high schools.

“That was evident in the amount of kids from the Philly area that’s all over the country making plays and being All-Americans and things like that,” he said. “We had a couple of good Zoom calls with him. We kind of talked about our differences and gave him feedback on how we felt they should be better.

“For them just listening to what we had to say, listing to our concerns and promising to do better as far as recruiting our kids, I think I have a great relationship with those guys.”

Smith, who was an assistant coach at Temple in 2013 before moving on the following season to Penn State, his alma mater, said Barnes has played a valuable role to “give us the heartbeat of Philadelphia, understand what those guys are thinking, what they need, and to help us manage the area better.”

“We communicate to each other about everything, about all the guys in the city whether we like them or not. He knows more people in the city, so when we need to find out if a kid is a player, he can make calls to certain people … people that we trust most and it gives us an insight to whether we really should hone in on a kid, or even in some cases back off of a kid.”

Of course, like a football game, a win in recruiting is celebrated for a short time before all those involved get back to work. Franklin and his staff will be on the lookout for uncommitted prospects for the second signing period in February and examine the transfer portal for help on the offensive line and at wide receiver, defensive end, and linebacker.

Meanwhile, Smith will continue to work Philadelphia with Barnes and keep the connections strong.

“We’re excited about where this relationship with the coaches in Philly are going and so we’re just going to ride this wave and continue to do better and make sure our relationships are transparent, open and genuine,” he said.

Two fewer signees

The Nittany Lions anticipated signing two more players who committed, but Lackawanna College safety Tyrece Mills, who went to high school at Northeast, told Lions247 that he would wait until February, and offensive tackle Andre Roye of Baltimore flipped and signed with Maryland.

Penn State’s recruiting class of 2022

QB Drew Allar, 6-5, 225, Medina, Ohio/Medina HS

RB Kaytron Allen, 5-11, 225, Norfolk, Va./Norview HS/IMG Academy (Fla.)

DT Kaleb Artis, 6-4, 310, Westbury, N.Y./St. Francis Prep HS

P Alex Bacchetta, 6-2, 205, Atlanta/Westminster School

LB Abdul Carter, 6-3, 235, Philadelphia/La Salle College HS

TE Jerry Cross, 6-5, 255, Milwaukee, Wis./Rufus King HS

DE Dani Dennis-Sutton, 6-5, 255, Millsboro, Del./McDonogh School (Md.)

DB Christian Driver, 5-11, 185, Flower Mound, Texas/Liberty Christian HS

DT Zane Durant, 6-1, 260, Lake Nona, Fla./Lake Nona HS

WR Omari Evans, 6-0, 170, Killeen, Texas/Shoemaker HS

DB Mehki Flowers, 6-0, 185, Harrisburg, Pa./Central Dauphin East HS

WR Anthony Ivey, 5-11, 180, Lancaster, Pa./Manheim Township HS

WR Tyler Johnson, 6-0, 175, Martinsville, Va./Magna Vista HS

OL Maleek McNeil, 6-7, 355, New York/Walter Panas HS

CB Cam Miller, 6-0, 175, Yulee, Fla./Trinity Christian Academy

OL JB Nelson, 6-5, 300, Pittsburgh/Mount Lebanon HS/Lackawanna CC

QB Beau Pribula, 6-2, 205, York, Pa./Central York HS

WR Kaden Saunders, 5-10, 170, Westerville, Ohio/Westerville South HS

OL Drew Shelton, 6-5, 275, Downingtown, Pa./Downingtown West HS

RB Nick Singleton, 6-0, 215, Shillington, Pa./Governor Mifflin HS

LB Ken Talley, 6-2, 238, Philadelphia/Northeast HS

DB Kevin Winston Jr., 6-2, 190, Columbia, Md./DeMatha Catholic HS

LB Keon Wylie, 6-2, 200, Philadelphia/Imhotep Charter HS