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COLLINS: Penn State quickly needs a football recruiting recalibration

DONNIE COLLINS
The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Penn State head coach James Franklin.

Sometime Friday, Diego Pounds will make his decision known.

Whatever it is, it won’t be news that breaks the internet. He’s a 6-foot-6, 305-pound offensive tackle, but in the recruiting business, he’s merely a decent prospect. Both Rivals.com and 247sports rank him as a three-star recruit. He may have a brilliant college career — the star rankings never prevent that — but right now, it’s not as if Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney are beating down a path to Pounds’ front door.

He’s strongly considering offers from LSU, Auburn and North Carolina. But, if the recruiting experts’ best guesses are right, the smart money is on Pounds verbally committing to Penn State.

If that happens, Pounds adds a nice piece for a 2021 recruiting class the coaching staff hoped would be heavily focused in the trenches. He’ll also be a symbol of what didn’t happen for this class, and what will have to moving forward.

Penn State’s 2021 recruiting class is ranked a shocking 34th by 247sports. Rivals doesn’t even rate it that high, barely keeping it in the top 40.

“I want to be clear on this: This class is not done, but up to this point, we haven’t gotten it done,” head coach James Franklin said recently. “We have not recruited up to the standards that we normally have.

“There’s a lot of factors that go into that, but that’s just the reality of it.”

Mediocre results: We can split what comes next into two categories: Inconvenient realities and legitimate excuses.

The reality is that Penn State hasn’t won many of the recruiting toss-ups. Four-star receiver Kaden Prather, long on the staff’s radar, committed to West Virginia in June. Top-rated junior college cornerback prospect De’Jahn Warren opted for Georgia despite a strong connection between Lackawanna College and Penn State. Nolan Rucci, a stud tackle prospect from the Lancaster area whose father, Todd, starred at Penn State in the early 1990s, committed to Wisconsin.

Nolan Rucci

Losing Rucci and Warren continued a trend that got some play last year: The Nittany Lions are doing the opposite of dominating the state. Of Rivals’ top 19 prospects in Pennsylvania, Penn State has landed a commitment from just one.

Of the six committed prospects ranked ahead of No. 10 overall athlete Lonnie White, two are going to Ohio State, two to Pittsburgh, one to Clemson and Rucci is heading to the Badgers.

The pandemic helps none of this. The NCAA instituted a recruiting dead period that extends just about through the rest of 2020. During a time prospects typically could take visits to see campuses, meet staffers and get to know players, programs won’t be allowed to host them.

Penn State’s biggest recruiting days of the year are the Blue-White Game in April, the summer camp for elite prospects, and the annual White Out game. The first two were canceled. The third is not happening without fans allowed in Beaver Stadium.

“I’m a huge believer that we are, in my mind, what you think of when you think of the true college town on a postcard,” Franklin said. “But it’s one of those things you’ve got to come and see and appreciate first-hand.”

There’s an inconvenient truth about recruiting at Penn State. It’s not seen yet as a “go there and you’ll be in the playoff” program. It’s still largely an atmosphere pitch, and there’s no shame there. Over the years, plenty of big-time recruits have gotten a taste of the White Out and couldn’t say no to seconds.

If you can’t sell that in 2020, and you aren’t landing the very best prospects in the state, what’s the alternative?

That’s where Diego Pounds come in.

Climbing back: If Pounds commits to Penn State, he’ll be both a rarity and a likely trendsetter.

It has been at least six years since a prospect committed to the program without visiting the campus, and Pounds has never been to State College.

Franklin knows if this class is going to scrap its way toward respectability before the early signing starts Dec. 16, it’s going to have to convince players to take the same leap of faith Pounds may.

All of this should lead to some questions about how Penn State approaches the recruiting game. Did a couple of years worth of focusing outside the state during some down years talent-wise bite the staff once the talent was better? Did other programs adjust more quickly and aggressively to a changing world?

Perhaps, most importantly, did a constant string of changes on the staff over the last few seasons finally come back to haunt the program in the eyes of top recruits? Was Penn State seen as too unstable in a time when stability has never mattered more to recruits and their families?

In fairness, Penn State’s 2022 class is off to a strong start; Rivals currently ranks it No. 3 in the nation. And the issues with the ‘21 class are far more about the quantity of players committed than the quality; the 3.54 average star rating of the Lions’ 16 commits ranks 12th.

Reality, though, is that Penn State needs both quantity and quality. It’s going to have to navigate a critical, challenging time better than it has if it wants them soon.