Penn State recruiting class superlatives: Who are the next Nittany Lions stars?

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Penn State put together a talent-packed 2018 recruiting class that ranked higher than any its ever assembled on National Signing Day. This 23-player group provides optimism for sustained success in Happy Valley, following two straight 11-win seasons.

The Nittany Lions welcomed six 2018 signees to campus as early enrollees in January. Coach James Franklin will add the remaining 17 newcomers to his roster this summer, further enhancing a competitive depth chart across the field.

Projections are paramount in college football recruiting. Whether coaches are evaluating a prospect’s ability to play multiple positions or potential physical progression, anticipating how a recruit could develop during the next four years typically dictates which high school players warrant scholarship offers.

That’s what we’re going to do here, in the form of superlatives. You’ve probably seen these in a yearbook at some point.

Most likely to become President of the United States. Most likely to win an Olympic medal. Most changed since freshman year. And so on…

Let’s apply some superlatives to this impressive Penn State class in an attempt to project what might lie ahead.

Most likely to win a Heisman Trophy: Ricky Slade

If we’re playing the odds here, it’s difficult to realistically predict someone who doesn’t play quarterback or running back. Ricky Slade, a 5-star running back recruit, can impact an offensive attack in several ways.

He erupted for 1,309 rushing yards (8.9 per carry) and 21 total touchdowns as a high school freshman. While collecting abundant early scholarship offers, Slade developed into a well-rounded playmaker who shined in the passing game and on special teams.

He gained 1,978 yards (11.1 per carry) on the ground in 2017, finishing with 2,700 all-purpose yards and 40 total touchdowns. Slade was named Virginia’s Gatorade Player of the Year.

A 5-foot-9, 185-pound prospect, he clocked a laser-timed 40-yard dash of 4.48 seconds and can break away for long-distance gains regardless of the play call. We witnessed how Penn State is willing to utilize a dynamic back when Saquon Barkley turned into a Heisman Trophy contender, and Slade eventually should have a chance to assert himself as a do-it-all contributor for the Nittany Lions.

“Obviously, I want to come in and make an impact and try to play early,” he told Land of 10 in January. “I think I’ll be on special teams. I’ll definitely be in a receiver role, out there in the slot. They’re going to try to get me the ball in a lot of different ways in the open field.”


Most likely to score a touchdown first: Justin Shorter

Perhaps no 2018 prospect turned more heads in a positive way last offseason than Justin Shorter. He dominated on the regional and national camp circuit, burning blue-chip defensive backs throughout a stretch that culminated in first-team honors at The Opening last June.

Shorter, a 6-4, 220-pound South Brunswick (N.J.) High School product, climbed 157 spots in composite recruit rankings between his junior season and Signing Day. He finished listed No. 8 overall and No. 1 among receivers.

“Justin Shorter is as good a high school wide receiver that I’ve ever seen, on film and in person,” Franklin said.

He collected 112 receptions for 1,822 yards and 21 touchdowns in a run-heavy offensive attack during his final three prep campaigns. His final touchdown catch occurred in a 2017 state championship victory.

Shorter has drawn comparisons to All-Pro Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who signed with Alabama as the top-ranked receiver recruit in 2008.

Devin Leary, a 4-star quarterback from New Jersey who signed with N.C. State, worked several drills alongside Shorter in camp settings. He described the advantage a pass target of this caliber can provide.

“Justin is the type of receiver who can get open no matter what,” he said. “It seems as if wherever you throw the ball — even if it’s behind him or a little above his head — he’s going to come down with it. As a quarterback, a guy like him makes your job 10 times easier.”


Most likely to become a top-10 NFL draft pick: Micah Parsons

It was tempting to list Shorter here, but the overall talent package of Penn State’s top-ranked signee since 2005 can’t be ignored. Micah Parsons, who de-committed from the Nittany Lions last April before returning to the class Dec. 20, is among the finest two-way prospects to develop in Pennsylvania.

The 6-3, 240-pound phenom introduced himself with a freshman season at Central Dauphin (Pa.) High School that featured 121 tackles — 27 for loss— and 18.5 sacks. Franklin, then less than a year into his Penn State career, offered Parsons soon afterward.

Parsons transferred to Harrisburg High School as a junior and helped the program become a state title contender. He earned U.S. Army All-American Bowl Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2017 after tallying 17.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks while working at linebacker and defensive end.

Parsons doubled as the most imposing running back in Pennsylvania, rushing for 1,239 yards (11.4 per carry) and 27 touchdowns. He discussed the possibility of earning an offensive role with various college staffs, including Penn State.

“Micah, from my point of view — he’s a once-in-a-generation type of athlete,” Harrisburg coach Calvin Everett said in a Signing Day profile published by Penn State. “There are very few things he cannot do and cannot do well on a football field.”

Parsons bullied opponents at both linebacker and defensive end in game and camp settings. He wowed in receiver drills during 2017 summer camps at Penn State and Nebraska.

After plenty of debate about Parsons’ ideal landing spot on defense, his college career begins at middle linebacker. He enrolled last month.

“Micah is a guy that’s going to be 245 pounds, running the 4.5 [seconds in the 40-yard dash],” Franklin said. “There is no doubt in my mind he could play defensive end. We have a challenge that we need to solve some linebacker depth issues that we have. We think with him graduating early, he’s got a chance to kind of learn it and have a chance to truly compete for the job come the fall. So it’s a combination of both. It’s a talent, but it’s also a need.”


Most likely to become a team captain: Jesse Luketa

This was probably the easiest pick. Jesse Luketa is among the most likable recruits I’ve encountered through a dozen years in this industry, and he possesses an innate quality to rally those around him.

“I’ve always been an individual who, when surrounded by my peers, I’ve always been considered a leader,” Luketa said. “I’m going to do whatever I can do to continue that and just lead the ones who are around me. Just be a vocal leader, and lead through my actions.”

A two-time all-state selection at Mercyhurst Prep (Erie, Pa.), the 6-3, 235-pound linebacker endured a challenging journey to reach January enrollment at Penn State. Luketa, the youngest of seven siblings in a single-parent home, left his family and friends in Ontario, Canada, for an opportunity to expand college football options.

This leap of faith paid off, and Luketa collected more than 30 scholarship offers. He quickly became the catalyst for this class following his February 2017 commitment, helping the Nittany Lions staff solidify a large collection of talent.

“You’ve got to have a stable guy to lead the point in recruiting all the guys and holding them together,” Penn State defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith said. “We, as coaches, we’re kind of like parents. The recruits will hear us to a point, and then they’ll want to hear from their peers. That’s where Jesse really played a major factor and held this class together. [He] kept them optimistic and upbeat.”

Luketa, who totaled 241 tackles, 23 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, 10 interceptions, 5 fumble recoveries and 3 blocked kicks in three seasons at Mercyhurst, won’t need much time to win over the Nittany Lions locker room.


Most likely to transition to a new position: Nick Tarburton

Plenty of people will point to Parsons for this superlative but I actually get the sense Nick Tarburton is more likely to move from a four-linebacker class. Standing 6-4, he shed 10 to 15 pounds during his first month on campus, according to Franklin, but his frame still suggests a promising future at defensive end.

“[Tarburton] creates flexibility with linebacker or defensive line, which is how he was recruited,” Franklin said.

It’s indeed a topic that was addressed during discussions between Tarburton and the staff. His father, Rick Tarburton, made it clear Nick is fully invested regardless of the outcome.

“He’ll play anywhere Coach Franklin tells him to play,” Rick said. “Nick is a football player. He wants to play linebacker. I think he likes the leadership aspects of linebacker, especially middle linebacker, but when he was younger he played defensive end for years. They moved him to linebacker because teams would run away from him when he was at end. As far as where he’ll play [at Penn State], I think it’s going to depend on what the team needs.”

Tarburton secured 98 tackles, including 19 for loss, and 7 sacks for Pennridge (Perkasie, Pa.) High School in 2017. His final three prep seasons featured 294 tackles — 47 for loss — and 17 sacks.


Most likely to improve most while in college: Jayson Oweh

Jayson Oweh is the proverbial “high-ceiling” prospect, and he’s genuinely eager to maximize that potential. After focusing on basketball early in high school, the 6-5, 238-pound defensive end played his first football season at Blair Academy (N.J.) in 2016.

Things quickly clicked, and Oweh claimed more than 20 scholarship offers before the end of his junior year. Still, he wasn’t satisfied with on-field results, and placed an emphasis on fundamental growth last offseason.

Each time I saw Oweh in a camp setting, his arsenal was a bit more expansive. He delivered an emphatic statement in his senior-season opener, securing 11 tackles and 4 sacks.

Afterward, when asked how much talent he’s tapped into thus far, Oweh responded “less than 50 percent”.

He finished the fall with 13 sacks in fewer than five games, and found himself in the center of a back-and-forth recruiting battle between Penn State and Ohio State. Oweh chose the Nittany Lions due in large part to his trust that Nittany Lions defensive line coach Sean Spencer will bring the best out of him.

His desire to improve, eye-opening production and rare athletic traits (4.46-second 40-yard dash and 4.29-second agility shuttle) create a blend for big-time strides in the years to come.

“His upside is just tremendous,” Blair Academy coach Jim Saylor said. “When he gets to a college program and has three hours each day just to focus on defensive end, it’s going to be special. He’s like a flower that hasn’t even bloomed yet.”


Most likely to be labeled a “freak” on the field: Zack Kuntz

This class features plenty of athletic “freaks,” and we’ve referenced a few of them here. After some debate, why not go with the 6-7 signee with outstanding receiving skills?

Zack Kuntz, the lone early enrollee on offense, could contend for immediate consideration in Penn State’s efforts to replace record-setting tight end Mike Gesicki. Franklin drew parallels between the two players in December.

“Kuntz, I think, is very similar in a lot of ways to Gesicki,” he said. “High school wide receiver — probably a little further along as a tight end than what Mike was — but both big-bodied guys who can really run.”

Kuntz, who earned a state championship in 110-meter hurdles as a junior, enjoyed an extremely productive football career at Camp Hill (Pa.) High School.

He totaled 147 receptions for 2,705 yards and 26 touchdown, capping things off with 8 catches for 303 yards and 2 scores in his final prep game. It was the second matchup of 2017 in which Kuntz surpassed 200 receiving yards.

Franklin sounds impressed based on early observations of his new weapon.

“Typically when you’ve got a guy who is built like him at 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds, it’s going to take them a long time to develop the strength and power needed to play,” Franklin said. “But I already see him packing it on and he came in stronger than we anticipated. So he’s already put on muscle mass. He’s already getting stronger in the weight room. We already knew he ran well because he ran so well in camp.”

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