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COLLINS: After mediocre recruiting class, Penn State embraces NCAA transfer portal

DONNIE COLLINS
The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Baylor's John Lovett (7) runs into the end zone for a touchdown against Texas during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Austin, Texas, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Penn State didn't dominate the Big Ten in the recruiting rankings last December.

It didn't even dominate the state.

Head coach James Franklin seemed rather unconcerned about the immediate impacts of a 2021 recruiting class that, at least so far, doesn't rank among the 20 best in the nation as far as the major recruiting services are concerned.

That's because things changed so much in big-time college football, a slightly less-packed-than-expected recruiting class and a few players pursing goals in the NFL or elsewhere can be remedied with a scan through the NCAA's transfer portal, a burgeoning recruiting database it practically ignored in the first two years of its existence.

"The transfer portal has obviously changed things dramatically in college football," Andy Frank, Penn State's director of player personnel, said on the first day of December's early signing period. "Now, the whole world sees who's on the market, if you will.

"I think we all kind of realize that in the past for us at Penn State, transfers were not a big part of our overall recruiting process. That will change."

Frank made one thing clear: Penn State will still do the overwhelming majority of its roster building the old-fashioned way, recruiting the top high school prospects it can find and developing them within the program. But, he said the Nittany Lions will no longer be shy about filling gaps in its roster with players in the portal, and over the last few weeks, that is rather evident.

Duke defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo (54) celebrates after Duke recovered a Miami fumble during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Duke won 20-12. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Four additions, so far: Penn State landed four players who entered the transfer portal since season's end: South Carolina cornerback John Dixon, Temple defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, Baylor running back John Lovett and Duke defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo. It's a marked difference from the Nittany Lions' old policies regarding the portal; since the portal became available to players in 2019, the Nittany Lions dipped into it for just three players, and only one — kicker Jordan Stout — developed into a regular contributor.

Frank's plan is for it to be much different this time around.

"When you recruit a high school kid, you are getting someone who you know at the vast majority of positions, you're going to have to develop into the player that you want him to be," Frank said. "In the transfer portal, he may already be along the way to who he is as a player, being in a college weight room, being physically advanced.

"We hope to bring those guys in here and have them be competition for guys on the roster and also fill some voids."

The four players brought in all had previous ties with the Nittany Lions as high school recruits. But the fact that they play the positions they do says as much as anything.

South Florida quarterback Jordan McCloud (12) is sacked by Temple defensive end Arnold Ebiketie (47) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Franklin fulfilling his vow: Franklin vowed the Nittany Lions would hit the portal hard to bolster depth on the defensive line, which was hit hard by losses. Starting defensive ends Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh announced they were heading to the NFL. Defensive tackles Antonio Shelton and Judge Culpepper both entered the portal, as well. Shelton announced Wednesday, that he'll transfer to Florida.

Tangelo is expected to be a veteran presence that will take the role Shelton would have had he returned, with Ebiketie competing to start alongside sophomore Adisa Isaac after his breakthrough season with the Owls.

Lovett and Dixon are both veterans who've had success at their previous institutions, joining position groups that won't have a player who started a full season heading into the fall.

It's expected the coaching staff will add a few more players through the portal as the offseason progresses and more needs arise.

"You'll see more activity in the second recruiting period as well as the transfer market, which is just really part of 2020 and where football is at and where football is headed," Franklin said.

South Carolina defensive back John Dixon celebrates after a South Carolina score against Vanderbilt in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. South Carolina won 41-7. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Here's a quick look at Penn State's four recent transfers:

CB JOHN DIXON

Height: 6-0

Weight: 185

2021 Eligibility: Sophomore

In 2020: Played in all 10 games for the Gamecocks, finishing sixth on the team with 34 tackles. Didn't record an interception, but broke up five passes and recovered a fumble.

RB JOHN LOVETT

Height: 6-0

Weight: 212

2021 Eligibility: Senior

In 2020: A physical running back who found himself on the watch list for the Paul Hornung award, Lovett started all five games he played and rushed for 130 yards on 45 carries. Also caught nine passes for 49 yards and a touchdown. His 1,803 career rushing yards rank him 16th on Baylor's all-time rushing list. Led the Bears in rushing as a sophomore in 2018 and ran for a career-best 655 rushing yards as a junior in 2019.

DE ARNOLD EBIKETIE

Height: 6-4

Weight: 240

2021 Eligibility: Junior

In 2020: Worked his way into the starting lineup after opening the season as a reserve and wound up earning second-team all-AAC honors. Freakishly talented DE who led the Owls with 8.5 tackles four loss, four sacks and three forced fumbles while also finishing third on the team in tackles. Had 10 tackles in season opener against Navy and nine in the season finale against Central Florida. Had one sack in four of final five games.

DT DERRICK TANGELO

Height: 6-2

Weight: 310

Eligibility: Senior

In 2020: Started all 11 games at defensive tackle for the Blue Devils to give him 28 starts in his career. Recorded 40 tackles, four TFLs, two sacks and a team-leading three forced fumbles. Had a season-best six tackles in back-to-back games against Syracuse and NC State, and a season-high three TFLs versus Syracuse