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Why 5-star central Pa. recruit Nolan Rucci didn't succumb to pressure to commit to PSU

PARTH UPADHYAYA
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Nolan Rucci

For the better part of the past six months, Nolan Rucci lived in two worlds.

There was the comfort of his family’s Lititz home, and then there was the pressure he couldn’t hide from when he stepped outside of it. But, of course, it’s hard to hide from much of anything when you’re a 6-foot-8, 295-pound 18-year-old in a town of less than 10,000 people.

Nolan Rucci is a senior offensive tackle at Warwick High School and a five-star prospect, ranked the No. 1 player in Pennsylvania for the Class of 2021 in the 247Sports Composite. Before Nolan committed to Wisconsin — where he’ll join his brother Hayden, a redshirt freshman tight end — on Sept. 8, there were eight schools in the mix for his services. Penn State made it to his top two. With Lititz just two and a half hours away from the heart of Nittany Lion country, external pressure mounted.

“There was always a lot of outside pressure to go to Penn State,” Nolan told the Centre Daily Times. “But at the end of the day, when you’re making your decision, it is the most selfish decision you can make. And so you’ve really gotta be thinking about what you want, not what everybody else in your community or your family wants.”

Parents have PSU roots: Within the Rucci household, Todd and Stacy Rucci kept the conversation off of their son’s big decision. Todd was an offensive lineman at Penn State from 1989-92; Stacy was an All-American field hockey player at the school during the same period. Both wanted Nolan to suit up for the Nittany Lions. But they never influenced him in any way throughout his recruitment. In fact, they didn’t even know which school was in the driver’s seat until earlier this month.

“People asked us all the time, ‘Who’s it down to?’” Todd said. “And I said, ‘We don’t ask that question. I don’t know. I really don’t.’ We really just tried to let him figure it out on his time. And honestly, Nolan’s got the greatest poker face ever.”

Todd and Stacy have been Penn State football season ticket holders since the mid-90s, so Nolan and Hayden grew up attending at least a couple games a year in Beaver Stadium. Nolan knew Penn State — the program, the campus and the traditions. After Hayden committed to Wisconsin (no, Penn State never offered) in early 2018 as a three-star recruit, Nolan began to learn about life as a Badger, too.

Fraternal bonds: Hayden came home at the end of March with the rest of his semester moved online because of the coronavirus pandemic. The brothers began working out together consistently, and Nolan heard stories of his older brother’s first year at Wisconsin.

“Obviously, I was just trying to work on getting him to come play with me,” Hayden said. “Hearing how much I loved it and how much he would fit there, I think that helped.”

Still, even Hayden had “no clue” which school Nolan was leaning toward picking. Eventually, he stopped asking after receiving very few answers.

Legacy had negatives and positives: Ultimately, Nolan saw being a double-legacy athlete at Penn State as having equally as many negatives as positives. On one hand, it would be special to continue the tradition started by his parents; on the other, he felt his name would always be mentioned in the same sentence as his father’s. He was instead determined to carve his own path.

On the night of Sept. 3 — five days before his public announcement — Nolan sat down with Todd and Stacy by the fire pit in the backyard of the family’s home. They had a final discussion, and Nolan’s decision to be a Badger was made hours later.

Nolan said the opportunity to play college football with Hayden, plus Wisconsin’s track record of putting offensive lineman in the NFL, is what put the program over Penn State.

Ruccis defend Franklin: The Ruccis have seen the criticism Penn State head coach James Franklin and his staff have received for not landing Nolan. This marks another year in which a top-five prospect in Pennsylvania is headed elsewhere. Last cycle, Class of 2020 five-star receiver Julian Fleming — who played high school football only 90 miles away from State College — picked Ohio State. Many Nittany Lions fans felt that Nolan, with his family’s ties to Penn State, would’ve been close to a sure thing.

“James Franklin and (offensive line coach) Phil Trautwein could not have done anything more,” Stacy said. “Anything that we asked of them, they delivered. ... You name it, it happened.”

"Dagger" to the heart at first: Stacy admitted that, at first, it was a bit of a “dagger” to the heart to realize that she’ll never see Nolan run out onto the field at Beaver Stadium in a Penn State uniform. But she consistently reminded her son that she and Todd would be happy with whatever choice he made.

“He was OK with that, just knowing that we’d be OK with it,” Stacy said.

And that was enough to empower Nolan to block out the outside noise and trust his intuition.

Hoping things now calm down: With his recruitment now over, Nolan hopes his world finally calms down — well, as calm as things can be for someone who can’t hide from the spotlight even if he tries.

“It’s a great position to be in, to have all this attention and everything,” he said. “But it is hard when you have a lot of people breathing down your neck wondering where you’re gonna go.”