HEISER: If 5-star recruits live up to billing, Penn State may again become Linebacker U.

Steve Heiser
York Dispatch
  • Penn State received a verbal commitment from five-star linebacker recruit Brandon Smith on Monday.
  • Smith is the highest-rated linebacker recruit in the James Franklin era at Penn State.
  • Penn State has added five football verbal commitments over the past week.

Let’s be honest — Linebacker U. hasn’t lived up to its nickname for nearly a decade.

Need proof?

Penn State head football coach James Franklin had lots of reasons to smile over the past week. The Nittany Lions added five verbal commitments for its 2019 recruiting class over the last week. AP FILE PHOTO

Quick, name the last Penn State linebacker to get picked in the first round of the NFL draft?


Well, you have to go all the way back to 2000, when the Washington Redskins picked LaVar Arrington with the No. 2 overall pick.

The most recent PSU linebackers to make a real impact in the NFL came from the 2010 draft, when Sean Lee was picked in the second round by Dallas and NaVorro Bowman went in the third round to San Francisco. Both have gone on to become Pro Bowlers.

Since then, the Lions haven’t had a single linebacker picked during the first two days of the NFL draft, and the linebackers who were selected at all (Gerald Hodges, fourth round, 2013; Michael Mauti, seventh round, 2013; and Nate Stupar, seventh round, 2012) have been OK NFL players, but far from stars.

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Hodges and Mauti, in fact, were the last two PSU linebackers to get drafted at all by the NFL.

Last year’s PSU linebacking corps, meanwhile, was average at best, at least by Big Ten standards, and the Lions return just two linebackers who saw significant time in 2017 — Koa Farmer and Cam Brown. Neither exactly has the pro scouts drooling. Farmer is a bulked-up strong safety disguised as a linebacker and Brown couldn’t even earn a single start last season.

Help on the way? Help, however, may soon be on the way.

Monday, the Nittany Lions landed an oral commitment from five-star recruit Brandon Smith. For the Class of 2019, he’s rated the No. 2 inside linebacker in the nation and the best player in Virginia.

It marks the first time that PSU head coach James Franklin has bagged a five-star linebacker recruit.

The 6-foot-4, 223-pound Smith reportedly had offers from powerhouse schools such as Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Michigan.

Former Harrisburg High standout Micah Parsons could start at linebacker as a true freshman at Penn State. AP FILE PHOTO

Smith is also the second-highest-rated overall recruit in the Franklin Era, trailing only Micah Parsons, who came to PSU as a defensive end but has since been switched to linebacker. The former Harrisburg High standout, generally regarded as one of the top-10 recruits nationally in the Class of 2018, could start as a true freshman in the fall.

Of course, recruiting stars don’t always translate to on-field performance. Anyone remember Quintus McDonald? He came to PSU as the USA Today High School Defensive Player of the Year in 1984, but never came close to living up to his advance billing.

Still, given the choice between a five-star recruit and a two-star recruit, any rational coach will pick the five-star kid every time.

If Smith and Parsons are as good as advertised, Linebacker U. may finally live up to its nickname in a few years.

Other good recruiting news: Smith’s addition was just part of a recent recruiting surge by PSU over the last week.

Tyler Rudolph, a four-star cornerback from Connecticut, also announced his PSU commitment on Monday.

Just the day before, four-star corner Marquis Wilson, also out of Connecticut, committed to Franklin.

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Friday, the Lions landed the second-best player in Virginia — four-star running back Devyn Ford.

Thursday, the best junior college safety in the nation, Jaquan Brisker out of Lackawanna College, picked PSU.

That surge brought PSU’s 2019 recruiting class up to eight commitments. The five recent recruits joined State College Area corner Keaton Ellis and quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson (from DePaul Catholic in Wayne), who committed last fall. Offensive guard Caedan Wallace, from the Hun School in Princeton, committed last month.

In the all-too-early team recruiting rankings for 2019, the Lions are now rated No. 14.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com. All of the ratings for this story are according to Scout.com.