Penn State recruiting class has Garden variety
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Penn State's Jersey Boys span the Garden State, some residing more than 100 miles apart.
But before these six highly regarded 2015 recruits unite in University Park, they're developing close bonds — the way today's teenagers do.
“Whether it's Twitter, Facebook or (iPhone) group chat,” Union City offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez said, “we're talking to each other everywhere.”
“We talk, like, every day,” Glassboro receiver Juwan Johnson said. “There's always something to talk about, and usually it's besides football.”
From just across the Hudson River from Manhattan (where Gonzalez and quarterback Brandon Wimbush are prep standouts) down to the Philadelphia suburbs (home of Johnson and receiver Irvin Charles) and seemingly everywhere in between, Penn State's new coaching staff has been picking New Jersey's talent.
Per Rivals.com rankings, the Nittany Lions have verbal commitments from four of the top six and six of the top 12 senior prospects from that state.
When Penn State coach James Franklin, at his introductory news conference, said he wanted to “dominate the state” in recruiting, who knew that meant New Jersey?
“Penn State has been recruiting New Jersey for a long, long time and had a lot of success,” ESPN Recruiting Nation senior coordinator Jeremy Crabtree said. “But what's happened with these last two classes — and especially this class — is really something to see.”
One-third of Penn State's verbal commitment list for next year (all of which are nonbinding until signing day in February) hails from New Jersey. Rivals.com rates Penn State's six Jersey Boys among the Lions' top 13 incoming players for next season, and ESPN.com rates four Penn State New Jersey recruits in its top 300 nationally for 2015.
What makes Penn State's raiding of New Jersey this year eye-opening is that Rutgers — New Jersey's state university — joins the Big Ten this season. Some wondered whether that would help the Scarlet Knights attract more talent from the Midwest, but the opposite has happened: Eight of New Jersey's top 11 prospects according to Rivals.com have committed to Big Ten schools, while Rivals' highest-rated high school senior electing to remain in state is No. 20.
“Everyone here expects us Jersey kids to go to Rutgers,” Johnson said. “But we're all just doing what is good for us and what will benefit us later in life.”
Although the Scarlet Knights' program has improved markedly since its sad-sack days of the 1980s and '90s — they've had just one losing regular season since 2005 — Rutgers' reputation has been marred by recent high-profile scandals involving two athletic directors, its president and former men's basketball coach Mike Rice.
Johnson and Gonzalez said those events were far from the deciding factors in their fleeing westward, but they concede those incidents hurt Rutgers' chances in landing in-state talent.
“It's kind of a perfect storm for Penn State right now of New Jersey,” Crabtree said.
Franklin's recruiting success extends beyond the shorelines. Penn State has Rivals.com's No. 4-ranked 2015 class, and its coaching staff has secured commitments from 10 states and Washington, D.C., during its first seven months. But if this offseason is any indication, expect Franklin's Lions to treat New Jersey as part of its home base.
“Everyone in Jersey says, ‘All the best players should go to Rutgers, blah, blah, blah,' ” Gonzalez said. “But ultimately it's up to that person, and I think Penn State, honestly, is the best college close to home for me. We all think that.”
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