In-state recruiting vital if Penn State football wants to rejoin nation's elite programs

KYLE J. ANDREWS
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Central York quarterback Beau Pribula is one of Penn State's in-state recruits in the 2022 recruiting class.

Penn State has steadily built ts in-state recruiting to solidify its foothold among Pennsylvania schools.

Nine signees from Penn State's 2022 recruiting class played high school football in the commonwealth: 5-star running back Nick Singleton ( Governor Mifflin), 4-star offensive tackle Drew Shelton (Downingtown West), 4-star athlete Mehki Flowers (Central Dauphin East), 4-star wide receiver Anthony Ivey (Manheim Township), 4-star linebacker Abdul Carter (La Salle), 3-star offensive tackle JB Nelson (Lackawanna C.C.), edge rusher Ken Talley (Northeast), quarterback Beau Pribula (Central York) and linebacker Keon Wylie ( Imhotep Institute).

In an interview on National Signing Day last month, Flowers said their home state connects the new recruits. There's a personal drive to build a legacy within their state or even a dogged determination by the coaching staff to cement themselves within each portion of the state. Flowers believes that their success begins in-state and can have a lasting impact on recruiting throughout the nation.

"Just with one of the older guys that I sit with and talk to about life, football and one of my mentors — we were just sitting down and talking about our recruiting class and how the top guys in PA are just committed to Penn State across the board," Flowers said. "Having that connection of PA to Penn State, that just shows how good the program is. It just shows that kids like us want to stay close to home and it helps us bring in kids from all across the country."

Central Dauphin East head coach Lance Deane has seen Penn State's involvement firsthand with Flowers since early on in his career. He previously served as Steelton-High's defensive coordinator, where he oversaw Flowers' growth and saw the Nittany Lions' staff fighting hard for his recruitment.

"I just think that their coaching staff does a great job," Deane said. "They get out and they want to be seen. They speak highly and take pride in Pennsylvania. So, I think it starts with the coaching staff and they do a great job of taking pride in Pennsylvania. They relate to the kids, they communicate with the kids, they're honest with them and they hold them to a good standard of accountability before they even get there. I think that and their relationships go a long way."

Dominate the state: The entire Penn State 2022 recruiting class is ranked as the 7th-highest in the country, per On3.com. Forty-two percent of the 23-man class is from Pennsylvania and the average distance of each recruit from campus is 370.1 miles. The Nittany Lions also have the 2nd-ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten, sitting behind Ohio State.

By comparison, Pittsburgh's 2022 class is ranked 58th in the nation, per On3.com, and just 8% of their 12 signees are from Pennsylvania. Temple's recruiting class includes three signees and one is from Pennsylvania. They're ranked 124th in the nation, per On3.

Head coach James Franklin's focus has been in-state. It's a part of the program's retooling over the past few years, going 4-5 in 2020 and 7-5 in 2021, following a Cotton Bowl victory in 2019. Franklin and the rest of the staff have methodically built relationships with a number of 2022 recruits throughout the course of their careers. The in-state recruits in particular have found that their goals have aligned with his, paving the way for future successes.

Singleton said he was sold on the program with Franklin bringing in key in-state running backs like Saquon Barkley (Whitehall), Miles Sanders (Woodland Hills) and Journey Brown (Meadville).

"All of our relationships are really good," Singleton said on National Signing Day. " Coach Franklin has been preaching since day one saying, all of these in-state players, we need to stay at home and make this team a Big Ten Championship team and national championship team. We've just been recruiting everywhere, to be honest. It's been really good."

Planting more seeds in Pennsylvania: It's been a grind to make inroads with the players in the state.

Four-star cornerback Joey Porter Jr. ( North Allegheny), 4-star defensive back Keaton Ellis ( State College) and 3-star cornerback Daequan Hardy ( Penn Hills) were the three in-state recruits of 2019.

Porter Jr. has continued to improve each season, seizing the starting cornerback role opposite departing senior Tariq Castro-Fields this season. Porter Jr. finished with 50 tackles (39 solo), an interception and four pass breakups in 2021. Ellis finished with 18 tackles (15 solo) and a pass deflection while playing both corner and safety in eight games. Hardy played in 12 games in 2021 to finish with 15 tackles (11 solo), three for loss, a sack, two interceptions — one returned for a touchdown and six pass deflections.

2020's class saw the Nittany Lions adding 3-star linebacker Tyler Elsdon (North Schuylkill), 3-star defensive tackle Fatorma Mulbah (Susquehanna Township) and 3-star offensive lineman Nick Dawkins (Parkland). Eldson had six tackles (four solo), Mulbah had four tackles (two solo) and Dawkins saw action in nine games for the Nittany Lions in 2021.

Penn State continued its growth in-state with 3-star tight end Khalil Dinkins ( North Allegheny), 3-star offensive lineman Nate Bruce (Harrisburg), 3-star kicker Sander Sahaydak (Liberty), Lonnie White Jr. ( Malvern Prep), and saw the transfers of kicker Barney Amor (Central Bucks East) and wide receiver Winston Eubanks (La Salle) to the program. Dinkins, Amor and Sahaydak didn't see action. Bruce left the program following spring ball and White Jr. was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates and chose to pursue a Major League Baseball career.

Tide seems to have shifted: The tide — at least on paper — has seemingly shifted for the Nittany Lions.

Franklin sees the increased success in the state as a numbers game and points to the personal relationships that his staff built with coaches, players and parents in Pennsylvania. Penn State had 22 players who signed national letters of intent in 2019 with just 18% of them being in-state recruits. When 25 players signed in 2020, that increased to 20%. While the Nittany Lions had a class of just 15 in 2021, 25% of the players were from Pennsylvania.

"You look at the Northeast in general, the population has gone down, the number of Division I recruits has gone down really in the Northeast," Franklin said on National Signing Day. "But it's something from my very first press conference when I walked in here about keeping the best players in the state of Pennsylvania home and we've worked hard at that. This year really showed that. Obviously, we knew we were going to sign a class of around 25, that helps.

"When you have a smaller class and you can't throw out as many offers just based on your numbers and what you can take, that impacts you as well if there's a position of need. All of those things kind of factor into it. We're very pleased with the success that we've had here in the state of Pennsylvania. The state of Pennsylvania is always going to be a priority for us with the coaches and prospects that we have here."

The hope from the new in-state signees is that they can turn things around from Penn State's 11-10 combined record in the past two seasons. Pribula said on National Signing Day that having pride in oneself and playing for community that he and others are familiar with can leave a legacy for years to come.

"It's just about building a culture and to represent your home state," Pribula said. "For me, that was really important as well in my decision. I wanted to represent where I'm from and Pennsylvania and Penn State as a PA school. To have the opportunity to represent myself and everybody back home is going to be really special."