By Harry Allison
Penn State wrapped up its 2017 recruiting class with 21 members. According to 247 Sports, the Nittany Lions’ haul ranks 15th in the country with 11 four-star and 10 three-star signees.
This is the third straight year coach James Franklin and his staff have put together impressive recruiting classes, ranking 15th and 20th in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Before Franklin and Co. embarked on its long, stress-filled National Signing Day, they knew four talented players were in the bag…because they were already on-campus.
Defensive back Lamont Wade, offensive lineman Mike Miranda, wide receiver K.J. Hamler and linebacker Brelin Faison-Walden graduated high school and enrolled at Penn State for the spring semester, classifying themselves as early enrollees.
The quartet have started classes and were on-hand at Penn State’s “War Room” to be recognized as the rest of the class sent their letters of intent via fax.
CJ Thorpe, rated the No. 4 player in Pennsylvania and No. 6 offensive guard in the country, headlines Penn State’s offensive linemen, but it’s a deep group.
The Nittany Lions welcomed four big boys up front: Miranda, Thorpe, Desmond Holmes and Robert Martin.
Franklin spoke highly of Miranda, a three-star center from Ohio who earned his high school league’s MVP as a senior.
“You watch his highlight tape,” the coach said as his eyes widened. “There was one game where this one kid, at one point I kind of felt bad for him. I mean, (Miranda’s) just pancaking him over and over and over and over again.”
Holmes and Martin have a plethora of potential, as well. Both are 6-foot-5 tackles who have room to grow.
Offensive line, a position that was arguably the most decimated of any by the scholarship reductions via NCAA sanctions, has become a point of emphasis in recent recruiting classes, and this year was no different.
“I think the offensive line will be a strength moving forward,” Franklin said. “I really do.”
Despite depth at all three positions, Penn State inked a trio of wide receivers, a quarterback and a running back.
Hamler, Cameron Sullivan-Brown and Mac Hippenhammer enter the fold as pass-catching options; Journey Brown is a speedy, underrated running back out of Meadville; and Sean Clifford, the first player of the 2017 class to verbally commit to Penn State, made his pledge official.
At wideout, Hamler and Hippenhammer could contribute in the slot as well as special teams, while Sullivan-Brown (6-foot-1) figures to be an outside threat.
However, Penn State did not sign a tight end for the first time since 2009.
Penn State wide receivers coach and offensive recruiting coordinator Josh Gattis didn’t sound concerned.
“We feel good about the men we have in this class,” Gattis said. “You try not to go a year, ever, where you don’t sign every position. But you’re never going to sacrifice and take a guy just because you have to take a position. For us, it came down to taking the best players available.”
Wade is the most talked-about recruit of the 2017 class, but the other defensive backs might be flying under the radar.
Four-star cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, who announced his decision to join Penn State minutes before Franklin and his staff joined the media Wednesday afternoon, couldn’t be discussed because he wasn’t officially signed.
However, cornerbacks coach and defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith raved about four-star cornerback Donovan Johnson, three-star cover man D.J. Brown, and four-star safety Jonathan Sutherland.
In regards to Sutherland specifically, the hard-hitting, 6-foot patrol man in the back of the secondary reminds Smith of Marcus Allen, Penn State’s 2016 leading tackler.
“Sutherland is a guy that brings some physicality,” Smith said. “We think he can be a really good cover guy, too, on the back end of the safety position.”
The coach said Sutherland could fill in right away for graduating senior Malik Golden, but admitted that all five secondary signees have the potential to make a difference early.
“You just don’t know which one will grasp it, which one will understand the system best,” Smith said. “Athletically speaking, all of those guys are capable. That’s the reason we recruited them all.”
Penn State’s biggest need to address in the 2017 class was linebacker — and the Nittany Lions took care of it.
Longtime verbal commit Dylan Rivers flipped to Virginia Tech last week, but earning the signature of four-star inside linebacker Ellis Brooks was critical, as was getting Faison-Walden and three-star prospect Brailyn Franklin on-board.
Brooks, who was offered the same day Rivers decommitted and later took an official visit, seemed like quick work made by Franklin and the staff.
But Penn State’s head man said recruiting Brooks wasn’t a blind dart throw. Franklin said when his family came for a visit, his dad ended up going downtown to buy $300 worth of Penn State gear.
“We’ve been in steady contact with Ellis for a long time,” Franklin said. “Really, really sharp kid, sharp family. What I would characterize as a Penn State kid and a Penn State family.”
Penn State bolstered the guys in front of the linebackers, too. The Nittany Lions signed two four-star defensive ends — Yetur Matos and Harrisburg’s Damion Barber — and a pair of defensive tackles — Fred Hansard and Corey Bolds.
Bolds was an unexpected signing for the Nittany Lions. The three-star prospect from New Jersey verbally committed at 6:15 a.m. and signed four hours later.
Franklin said with Antoine White transferring to Albany and fellow defensive tackle Brenon Thrift leaving the program, the position was a need.
Bolds’ addition helped fill the void.
“You talk about a huge pickup,” Franklin said. “Corey Bolds is a guy we recruited really early on. Once his mom and him got on-campus, it changed completely. We got some commitments. Corey stayed patient. We just kept talking…We’re jacked about having that guy.”