Blue White Illustrated

January 2022

Penn State Sports Magazine

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J A N U A R Y 2 0 2 2 5 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M P enn State has been here before. The Nittany Lions signed the seventh-ranked recruiting class in the country according to On3 on Dec. 15, the program's best effort since the 2018 class. In many respects, those two groups are already inextricably linked, having raised similar hopes upon their respective signing days. That 2018 recruiting class ranked fifth nationally and inked its letters just as the program was making an on-field resur- gence. Set for a Fiesta Bowl appearance against Washington later that month, the Nittany Lions were sporting a 22-5 com- bined record in the two seasons leading up to the class's signing and were loaded with instantly recognizable names like Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley, Mike Gesicki and Jason Cabinda. Capitalizing on the team's on-field success in 2016 and '17, head coach James Franklin and his staff landed Penn State's highest-rated class since 2006. The cir- cumstances were similar, too. That earlier group had responded to the success the Nittany Lions enjoyed during their re- surgent 2005 Orange Bowl season and conference championship. The 23-player class that PSU signed in 2018 represented an opportunity. It was led by a pair of five-star prospects in re- ceiver Justin Shorter and linebacker Mi- cah Parsons, and it also included a dozen high-four-star players: running back Ricky Slade, linebacker Jesse Luketa, of- fensive linemen Rasheed Walker, Nana Asiedu and Juice Scruggs, defensive linemen PJ Mustipher, Jayson Oweh and Nick Tarburton, tight ends Zack Kuntz and Pat Freiermuth, and receivers Jahan Dotson and Daniel George, all of whom were among the nation's top 250 recruits in On3's Consensus rankings. The influx of talent seemed to ensure that Penn State's moment of heightened success would prove to be sustain- able. And as then-receivers coach Josh Gattis explained at the time, those pros- pects were all-in on that notion. "We sold those guys on a vision, and now we're able to come in and we're showing them, two years in a row un- defeated at home, we've won a Big Ten championship, we're competing on the national stage to position ourselves for national championships," Gattis said. "Now it's all about finishing that vision. We've shown that the plan works, the vision works, and now we've got to con- tinue to sustain our classes and our roster to compete at that high level. "It's probably one of the most talented classes that we've had the past few years. We're excited about what the future brings for Penn State football." That future never came to fruition. While the stories behind the individual trajectories are varied, the reality for Penn State has been one of unmet potential each of the past two seasons. • Parsons played just two years, opt- ing out of what was set to be his star turn ahead of the mangled 2020 college foot- ball season due to COVID-19. • Shorter, Slade, Kuntz, defensive tackle Judge Culpepper, quarterback Will Levis, and defensive backs Trent Gordon and Isaiah Humphries all transferred. • Asiedu and cornerback Jordan Miner saw their football careers end due to health complications before ever begin- ning at Penn State. • Parsons, Freiermuth and Oweh are now all budding NFL stars in their first seasons in the league, with Parsons vying for a Defensive Rookie of the Year nod for his play with the Dallas Cowboys. • And, four years into the cycle, only Walker, Mustipher, Dotson, Tarburton, Luketa and Scruggs were starters for Penn State's 2021 season. Precisely because of those trajectories, the Nittany Lions' 2022 class arrives at a drastically different moment for the program. Heading into their Outback Bowl date against No. 23 Arkansas on New Year's Day, the Lions were 7-5 and had struggled to find consistent success. They began the year with wins against ranked op- ponents Wisconsin and Auburn, but the second half of the season was marred by injuries, disappointments and, most im- portant, losses. All of this, of course, followed a stun- ning disaster in 2020, a season in which the Lions opened with five consecutive losses and finished 4-5. Allowing for the reality that different members of the group will take differ- ent paths to the field, and that some will never get even that far, what lies ahead for the Nittany Lions' 2022 class is undeni- ably crucial to the program's future. Led by two quarterbacks, two stud running backs, potential game-changing defensive linemen, a pair of high-end tackles, and skill guys on both sides of the ball, their collective trajectory must di- verge wildly from that of the 2018 class. They need to develop, stay healthy, avoid a life-altering pandemic, have some luck, and remain in the program. Penn State's path back to Big Ten title conten- tion and New Year's Six bowl invitations depends on it. ■ Now an NFL standout as a rookie, Micah Parsons was a five-star headliner of the Nittany Lions' recruiting class in December 2018. While that top-five group never reached its full potential on the field at Penn State, the hope is that this year's class will achieve success com- mensurate with its top-10 ranking. PHOTO BY RYAN SNYDER O P I N I O N NATE BAUER HOT READ PSU's Best Recruiting Class Since 2018 Crucial To Program's Future

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