Mark Duda tells a great story about how he got Anthony Whigan, and it’s a story that gets to the heart of what places like Lackawanna College are about and what kids will do when their last opportunity is about to evade them.
A decent offensive line prospect out of Great Mills High School in Maryland, Whigan verbally committed to Towson University, a pretty good football program in its own right. Problem was, he didn’t qualify academically to play there.
Long and short of it was, Whigan had blown one chance, but he’d get another one at Lackawanna, under Duda its longtime head coach. Towson head coach Rob Ambrose knew he wasn’t going to get that same luxury.
“(Ambrose) said to me, ‘There’s no way we’re going to get him back,’ ” Duda recalled. “ ‘Once you guys get him, he’s going to become a major player in this country.’ ”
Those words officially became prophetic Wednesday, when Whigan faxed his national letter of intent to play football at Penn State as part of the early class of 2019 signing day. He joined safety JaQuan Brisker, arguably the best junior college defender in the nation with the Falcons last season, to give Lackawanna two prospects in the same Nittany Lions recruiting class for the first time ever.
This is no slouch of a class for Penn State. So far, it’s a top-10 class in the nation according to 247sports, and there is room to improve before the next signing day Feb. 6. The fact that only 18 members in the class signed Wednesday — a good number for sure, but hardly an oversized group, all things considered — says something about the quality of athlete head coach James Franklin and his staff continue to lure to Happy Valley.
But as good as those prospects are, and guys like linebacker Brandon Smith and running back Noah Cain and defensive end Adisa Isaac can certainly push for significant early playing time, there may not be two players in this class with as good a chance to start as the ones who suited up for the unbeaten Falcons last season.
Be warned: Neither seems interested in walking into the locker room to simply wait for an opportunity.
“I feel like I’m a difference-maker. I can change the program,” Brisker said. “I can change the defensive backs. Penn State needs a defensive back like me. I can change the game, and I can bring some leadership to the group. I can bring some swag to the group also.”
They’re also confident words. Words backed up with results.
During his sophomore season with the Falcons, Brisker led the team in, get this: Tackles (64), tackles for loss (17) and sacks (9). He was also second in pass breakups (5), and he missed a game.
Penn State doesn’t lose much off a defense that became much more dynamic by the end of the 2018 season, but it does graduate Nick Scott at the safety spot. The obvious assumption is redshirt freshman Jonathan Sutherland will ascend into that spot, but Brisker has serious plans to make that a battle.
“I definitely feel like what I’ve done here has prepared me for that job,” Brisker said. “I know I’m going to compete there. I know I’m really going to compete there. I know there’s no safety like me, I feel. I definitely respect every other safety there, but I just feel like I can start there.”
There is one spot open on the offensive line, as left guard Steven Gonzalez is graduating. But that’s not the spot Whigan is looking at right now.
“I’m hoping to fit right in and battle for that right tackle position,” Whigan said. “I know that’s going to be a lot of hard work, a lot of grinding. But I also know I’m ready for that challenge.”
Duda said Lackawanna’s 2018 offensive line ranked among the best he has ever coached, and as the season went on, Whigan became more dominant from his tackle spot. As he became more dominant, the more big-time programs ignored the reality that he had already committed to Penn State.
He didn’t renege on that commitment, of course, but if he didn’t feel like he could be a contender for a starting tackle spot, it’s not like he wouldn’t have had other options to get one.
“Here, they developed me really well,” Whigan said. “They taught me so many different things from a technical standpoint. They brought me up from an immature guy coming in to a real man who was ready for success on and off the field.
“Their tackles are a lot like me. Ryan Bates, he’s really athletic and more of a (similar) style guy like me. They run a similar offense as us, and I feel I’ll fit right in.”
Lackawanna sent prospects to Penn State before, with mixed results. Paris Palmer was a good prospect who got rushed into the lineup a bit before he was ready, during a period in the program’s history when necessity mattered more than preparedness. Brenon Thrift ran into a crowded defensive tackle spot and never saw the field.
The difference now is Whigan and Brisker are entering battles where there is depth, where there is talent, and they’re good enough prospects to upset the apple cart; the type of guys who have come through Lackawanna before and ended up contributing at places like West Virginia and Oklahoma.
Penn State building a better rapport with the Falcons and the talent they develop year in and year out is a big story. It will become a bigger one if guys like Whigan and Brisker can do what they believe they will do.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT