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Penn State football: Looking closer at the Nittany Lions’ 2019 recruiting class

The Nittany Lions’ 2019 recruiting class has signed, and it’s now official.

At least, mostly.

James Franklin acknowledged Wednesday that the class might not be finished, and 247 Sports reported that Penn State safety target Nick Cross — a soft Florida State verbal who’s also looking at Maryland — is still mulling his options. Regardless, National Signing Day came and went Wednesday and, with it, the Nittany Lions were still able to tout their current 23-member class as one of the nation’s best.

Here’s a look at all of the football team’s newest Nittany Lions, grouped by those who signed Wednesday and those who did so during the early signing period. The number next to each name indicates the order the player sent in his faxed National Letter of Intent:

National Signing Day signees

23. WR TJ Jones, 3 stars

Height/weight: 6-1/185

School (Hometown): Columbia (Lake City, Fla.)

Synopsis: Jones is yet another Sunshine State commit for Penn State assistant Ja’Juan Seider. The Palm Beach County native and former Florida coach nabbed both Jones and Chaminade-Madonna Prep wideout John Dunmore in the 2019 class.

Jones is rated below Dunmore; the former is the No. 74 wideout in the country, while the latter is a four-star, top-120 overall prospect. However, Jones was a prolific pass-catcher at Columbia. He had 84 catches, 1,711 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns over the course of three seasons.

Jones fielded offers from 38 schools, including Florida, Maryland, Miami, Mississippi State, Oregon and Pitt. But his decision came down to Penn State, Indiana and Texas A&M.

By choosing the Nittany Lions, Jones joins a young nucleus of wide receivers. Redshirt sophomore KJ Hamler, redshirt freshman Justin Shorter and sophomore Jahan Dotson will lead the way in 2019, with support from Daniel George, Cam Sullivan-Brown, Mac Hippenhammer, Dunmore and now Jones.

22. DT Joseph Appiah Darkwa, 3 stars

Height/weight: 6-5/270

Team (Hometown): Dusseldorf Panthers U-19 (Germany)

Synopsis: Darkwa was a late-bloomer in every sense of the term. The defensive tackle was lightly recruited prior to December’s early signing period, earned offers from UCLA, Cincinnati and Indiana that month and caught the eye of Penn State and Colorado in early January.

Darkwa — the No. 1 player in Germany and the No. 69 DT in the 2019 class — was expected to pick Sean Spencer and Penn State. Six of six experts on 247 Sports’ Crystal Ball predictions had the prospect landing in Happy Valley, and Darkwa “really felt the love” after visiting State College two weekends ago, according to his Twitter.

Speaking of Spencer, Darkwa is definitely a long-term project for the assistant coach. Even with Kevin Givens leaving for the NFL early, Robert Windsor, Antonio Shelton, PJ Mustipher, Fred Hansard and Damion Barber should be enough depth to hold the Nittany Lions over in 2019.

If not, 2019 signee D’Von Ellies is a more polished product than Darkwa. But there’s promise surrounding the Dusseldorf star.

“What makes this kid special is he is 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, but he moves like he is so much smaller,” Brandon Collier of PPI Recruits, who worked with Darkwa, told 247 Sports. “His body types are in the NFL. He is a kid that has everything you are looking for in a 3 technique.”

21. DE Smith Vilbert, 3 stars

Height/weight: 6-6/250

School (hometown): St. Joseph Regional (Montvale, N.J.)

Synopsis: Penn State fans might especially appreciate his player comparison from 247 Sports.

National recruiting analyst Brian Dohn wrote that Vilbert compares favorably to the Atlanta Falcons’ Jack Crawford, a Penn State alum who picked up 40 tackles and 7 TFLs in his senior season in 2011. Said Dohn, regarding Vilbert’s college outlook: “Two- to three- year starter at strong Power 5 program and mid-level NFL draft pick.”

Vilbert focused on basketball most of his high school career, and he really didn’t see the recruiting spotlight until his senior season. But, as a senior, he was impossible to ignore.

In 12 games, he racked up 45 tackles and 17 tackles for loss, to go along with nine sacks, three fumble recoveries and 11 hurries. Although he didn’t receive a high star rating, college programs didn’t seem to mind. He earned nearly 20 offers in all, from the likes of Florida, Oregon, Baylor and Florida State.

20. CB Daequan Hardy, 3 stars

Height/weight: 5-10/160

School (hometown): Penn Hills (Pittsburgh, Pa.)

Synopsis: Hardy’s leap to Penn State was as swift as possible. The nation’s No. 32 cornerback, according to 247 Sports, picked up an offer from the Nittany Lions on Tuesday afternoon and announced his commitment later that night.

Now, the Nittany Lions didn’t just start recruiting Pennsylvania’s Class 5A Player of the Year this week. Hardy unofficially visited Penn State on April 14 and was back in Happy Valley for an official visit on Jan. 25.

Hardy wasn’t heavily recruited by Power 5 program in large part because of his size, but he boasts an impressive resume. A star wideout at Penn Hills, as well, Hardy scored 25 touchdowns in five different ways in 2018, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He had 10 scoring plays of 50 yards or more, caught 37 passes, rushed for 373 yards and nabbed 10 interceptions as a senior.

Hardy received offers from 10 programs, including Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska. However, the Wolverines and Spartans weren’t recruiting the corner “for a while,” according to the Post-Gazette.

Hardy visited Buffalo on Jan. 11 and Toledo a week later. “I believe I’m a Power 5 conference player,” Hardy told the Post-Gazette in December.

19. DT D’Von Ellies, 4 stars

Height/weight: 6-2/280

School (hometown): McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Md.)

Synopsis: OK, technically, Ellies belongs in the early signing period group. But he was a special case here.

Ellies apparently signed with the Nittany Lions in December, but he kept his commitment quiet until announcing at the Polynesian Bowl in January.

At any rate, he’s a big get for the Nittany Lions. Literally. The 280-pound prospect fills a position of need in defensive tackle, and 247 Sports ranks him at No. 9 nationally at his position. National 247 writer Charles Power even compared him to Atlanta Falcons DL Grady Jarrett, saying Ellies “projects as a multi-year Power 5 starter with the potential of developing into a mid-round NFL Draft pick.”

As a junior, Ellies competed alongside current Nittany Lion PJ Mustipher. As a senior this past season, Ellies finished with 72 stops, 17 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. He ran a laser-timed 5.12-second 40-yard dash.

Early signing period signees

18. TE Brenton Strange, 4 stars

Height/weight: 6-4/214

School (hometown): Parkersburg High (Parkersburg, W.Va.)

Synopsis: Perhaps Strange’s commitment to the Nittany Lions went overlooked. The No. 14 tight end in the country picked Penn State over Ohio State two days after James Franklin’s team lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Buckeyes.

But if Penn State fans missed his verbal commitment on Oct. 1, they should get to know the name.

Strange — the No. 3 prospect from West Virginia — is the third four-star tight end the Nittany Lions have nabbed in the last two cycles. Pat Freiermuth and Zack Kuntz picked Penn State in 2018. Freiermuth broke out with seven touchdowns as a starter, while Kuntz redshirted.

Nick Bowers, Danny Dalton and Jon Holland also have eligibility remaining, so Strange might not play in 2019. But should Freiermuth continue his upward trend and possibly leave after 2020 for the NFL, Strange is a good option to have.

In four years at Parkersburg, Strange caught 186 passes for 2,660 yards and 23 touchdowns. In addition to Ohio State, he also held offers from Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Maryland and Cincinnati.

17. WR John Dunmore, 4 stars

Height/weight: 6-2/172

School (hometown): Chaminade-Madonna Prep (Hollywood, Fla.)

Synopsis: Dunmore, the No. 17 prospect in Florida, verbally committed to the Nittany Lions on July 4 — but his recruitment was far from over.

The No. 21 wide receiver in the 2019 class unofficially visited Miami on Sept. 28, Nov. 3, Nov. 21 and Nov. 24. He took an official visit on Dec. 13 and hosted the Hurricanes’ staff for an in-home two days prior.

But James Franklin and Florida recruiting savant JaJuan Seider held off Mark Richt and company.

Dunmore racked up 730 yards and six touchdowns as a senior and gained a reputation for pulling off acrobatic scores. With DeAndre Thompkins and possibly Juwan Johnson moving on, Dunmore could compete for time right away.

In addition to heavy interest from Miami, Dunmore held offers from Auburn, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Ohio State and Notre Dame.

16. S Jaquan Brisker, 3 stars (JUCO)

Height/weight: 6-1/190

School (hometown): Lackawanna C.C. (Scranton, Pa.)

Synopsis: Don’t let the star rating or the junior-college status fool you. Brisker has all the tools, and he has the potential to battle for a starting spot next season.

He had 10 offers — from the likes of Alabama annd Mississippi State — and he also boasts the ability to play as a hybrid linebacker. In fact, for his junior college this season, he finished with 17 tackles for loss and nine sacks while playing that hybrid role.

Assistant coach Terry Smith also knows him well. He used to be the waterboy for Smith’s high school team, Gateway, nearly a decade ago.

He won’t be able to join the program until the summer. But the native of Monroeville, Pa., still has “hidden gem” written all over.

15. QB Taquan Roberson, 4 stars

Height/weight: 5-11/193

School (hometown): DePaul Catholic (Wayne, N.J.)

Synopsis: In a way, Roberson has been a Nittany Lion longer than Micah Parsons. Roberson was the second member of James Franklin’s 2019 class, verbally committing on Oct. 25, 2017, a month after Keaton Ellis pledged.

Roberson’s stock has skyrocketed since his commitment, moving from a three-star QB to a four-star recruit. His play supported that jump, too. The No. 9 dual-threat quarterback in the country put up 4,898 passing yards, 887 rushing yards and 67 total touchdowns the past two seasons.

Roberson earned an Ohio State offer after committing to Penn State, but never visited Columbus. He also held offers from Kentucky, Maryland, Boston College and Virginia Tech.

14. RB Noah Cain, 4 stars

Height/weight: 5-10/209

School (hometown): IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.)

Synopsis: Penn State’s run on running backs continues.

After signing four-star Devyn Ford earlier in the morning, Cain picked the Nittany Lions over Texas, LSU, Georgia, Ohio State and just about every other national title contender.

Cain — the No. 7 running back in the country and No. 104 overall prospect — had 27 offers in all, making him one of the most sought-after rushers in the 2019 class.

Gabe Brooks of 247 Sports compared Cain to two-time Pro Bowl back Alfred Morris. “Broad-shouldered, stout running back with high-volume ability,” Brooks wrote. “Prototypical body and overall build for an every-down back who can carry the ball 20-plus times a game if needed. … Willing to finish runs with authority.”

13. OT Anthony Whigan, 4 stars (JUCO)

Height/weight: 6-4/292

School (hometown): Lackawanna C.C. (Great Mills, Md.)

Synopsis: A graduate of Great Mills High School in Maryland, Whigan impressed at Lackawanna in Scranton.

In 2018, the Falcons averaged 203.9 rushing yards per game. Whigan — the No. 10 overall JUCO prospect and No. 3 offensive tackle — had offers from 15 schools, including South Carolina, Nebraska, Maryland, Arkansas and Louisville.

He was teammates at Lackawanna with safety Jaquan Brisker.

12. LB Lance Dixon, 4 stars

Height/weight: 6-1/205

School (hometown): West Bloomfield (West Bloomfield, Mich.)

Synopsis: Dixon is made somewhat in the Koa Farmer mold, as he played safety in high school before moving to linebacker.

He can reportedly run a sub-4.5, and he can play just about anywhere. In October, against an undefeated opponent, he took over for his team’s injured running back and frustrated Oak Park with a series of speedy jet sweeps. He also blocked a punt. And, yes, sacked the opposing quarterback — who’s headed to Ohio State. (Dixon’s team earned the 27-21 upset.)

Both Michigan and Michigan State also offered him a scholarship, but he couldn’t turn down the allure of playing for Linebacker U.

He may not start from Day 1, but his potential led to more than two dozen scholarship offers. His pass-coverage skills border on elite for a linebacker and, with the right development, he could be a critical cog to this defense.

11. S Tyler Rudolph, 4 stars

Height/weight: 5-11/200

School (hometown): St. Thomas More (Oakdale, Conn.)

Synopsis: Looking for a versatile player with great change-of-direction? Look no further than Rudolph.

Part of the reason Penn State liked Rudolph so much was the fact he can play corner, either safety position and in nickel or dime packages. “To me,” Rudolph told a local media outlet, “it doesn’t matter where I play.”

He ran a laser-timed 4.62-second 40 at a Nike camp, but he’s also reportedly run as fast as a 4.4. His official shuttle time, which helps measure change of direction, came in at 4.18 — a time that would already put him in the middle of the defensive backs’ times in the most recent NFL Combine.

Rudolph is ranked No. 22 nationally at his position and boasted more than 20 offers from the likes of Clemson, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

10. LB Brandon Smith, 5 stars

Height/weight: 6-3/225

School (hometown): Louisa County (Mineral, Va.)

Synopsis: Say hello to the headliner of Penn State’s 2019 recruiting class.

Smith, the No. 25 overall prospect in the nation, is the Nittany Lions’ highest-rated prospect and their first true five-star linebacker since 2004’s Dan Connor. (Micah Parsons was technically listed as a five-star defensive end.)

Smith runs a laser-timed 4.59-second 40-yard dash, and he’s versatile enough to play inside or outside. Barton Simmons, 247 Sports’ Director of Scouting, believes he already has the tools “to become a first round NFL Draft pick.”

Smith boasted nearly 30 offers from a who’s-who of teams such as Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame. He could compete for immediate playing time in 2019.

9. OG Caedan Wallace, 4 stars

Height/weight: 6-5/291

School (hometown): Hun School (Princeton, N.J.)

Synopsis: James Franklin has long said that offensive line is the hardest place for a true freshman to contribute. But Wallace might be the exception to the rule.

Wallace is the No. 71 prospect in the country, giving the Nittany Lions one top-100 linemen in each of the last four recruiting classes (Rasheed Walker, 2018; C.J. Thorpe, 2017; Michal Menet, 2016).

Wallace — the No. 2 guard in the 2019 class — earned an invite to the U.S. Army All-American game in January. Brian Dohn of 247 Sports compared him to former Outland Trophy winner and top-five pick Brandon Scherff.

Wallace had offers from 30 schools, including Oklahoma, Clemson, Florida and Michigan.

8. DE Adisa Isaac, 4 stars

Height/weight: 6-4/220

School (hometown): Canarsie (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Synopsis: Isaac, who committed only Monday, once thought his future path to college was wrestling.

After his explosive sophomore season, he realized it was football as an edge rusher. Rutgers was the first to offer him — and that was before, by Isaac’s own admission, he took the sport seriously. Once he did, just about every major college program came calling.

He’s widely regarded as a top-five prospect at his position, and he has more than 30 scholarship offers. His final four came down to Syracuse, Miami (Fla.), Texas A&M and Penn State. And fans can likely thank DL coach Sean Spencer quite a bit for the defensive windfall.

“My position coach at Penn State has coached my high school coach,” Isaac told Rivals, “so I trust them.”

7. CB Marquis Wilson, 4 stars

Height/weight: 5-11/167

School (hometown): Avon Old Farms (Avon, Conn.)

Synopsis: After seeing what the atmosphere was like to the annual Blue-White Game, Wilson didn’t need to wait much longer to commit. He verbaled a month later.

He’s an athletic player, one who played both ways in high school and ran the shuttle in 4.09 — a time that would’ve been among the top-10 fastest in the most recent NFL Combine.

Wilson had more than two dozen scholarship offers from schools such as Alabama and Ohio State, and he was rated as the nation’s No. 37 CB prospect — just three spots behind future teammate Joey Porter Jr.

He’s the second commit from Connecticut in the class.

6. QB Michael Johnson Jr., 4 stars

Height/weight: 6-2/197

School (hometown): Sheldon (Eugene, Ore.)

Synopsis: The son of Oregon’s wide receivers coach rejected the Ducks’ interest. Instead, Johnson will play his college ball 2,300 miles from Eugene.

The No. 8 dual-threat quarterback in the country, Johnson is an explosive signal-caller who boasts a 4.58-second 40-yard dash.

The No. 271 prospect in the country accounted for 99 touchdowns as a three-year starter, throwing for 5,287 yards and rushing for 2,393. As a senior, Johnson threw for 1,821 yards with 19 touchdowns and just three INTs, while running for 1,290 yards and 18 scores.

Johnson enters an interesting quarterback room. Trace McSorley is moving on, and Tommy Stevens is gone after 2019. Johnson will likely compete for the 2020 starting job with Sean Clifford, Will Levis and fellow 2019 commit Taquan Roberson.

Johnson had offers from 29 schools, including Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State.

5. OG Saleem Wormley, 4 stars

Height/weight: 6-3/311

School (hometown): Smyrna High (Smyrna, Del.)

Synopsis: The last time Penn State went down and snagged Delaware’s No. 1 prospect was in 2014, when the Nittany Lions signed Middletown star Chris Godwin. That worked out well — and James Franklin is hoping for a similar success story in Wormley.

The No. 16 guard in the country anchored Smyrna’s offense in 2018, paving the way for 1,536 rushing yards, 18 touchdowns and 6 yards per carry.

Wormley had offers from 17 schools, including Notre Dame, Florida State, Pittsburgh and Tennessee.

4. DT Hakeem Beamon, 4 stars

Height/weight: 6-3/259

School (hometown): Manchester (Midlothian, Va.)

Synopsis: A former North Carolina commit, Beamon re-opened his recruitment right around the time bigger programs like Alabama and Ohio State showed significant interest.

He’s not exactly a polished recruit but, with a 4.9-second 40 at 259 pounds, there’s plenty to work with. He was originally looked upon as a defensive end but, at his size, the Nittany Lions announced Wednesday that he would focus on defensive tackle.

He was nearly unstoppable in his Virginia league this past season. Despite regularly seeing double teams, Beamon finished his senior year with 45 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and five pass deflections.

He had double-digit offers from the likes of Arkansas, Bama, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.

3. CB Joey Porter Jr., 4 stars

Height/weight: 6-1/185

School (hometown): North Allegheny (Wexford, Pa.)

Synopsis: Yes, he’s the son of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ star — but Pitt was never really in the picture. Penn State always was.

“They were always in my top two, from the very beginning,” Porter told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, referring to PSU. “Before they even offered, I always loved Penn State. I’ve been going up there since I was a freshman. I fell in love with that school at a young age. When they offered me, it was a game-changer.”

Porter’s No. 2 school? LSU. Pitt did make the top five, however.

Regardless, he obviously knows football. (He told The Athletic he feels like a coach on the field.) He was productive his senior season — 378 all-purpose yards, three interceptions — and he’s ranked as the nation’s No. 34 cornerback.

2. RB Devyn Ford, 4 stars

Height/weight: 5-11/188

School (hometown): North Stafford (Stafford, Va.)

Synopsis: For the fourth time in five years, Penn State nabbed a top-tier running back. In 2015, it was Saquon Barkley. In 2016, it was Miles Sanders, and last year, it was Ricky Slade.

Now, it’s Ford joining what has become a run of talented Nittany Lion rushers.

The No. 80 prospect in the country, Ford is the No. 5 running back in the 2019 class and No. 2 player in Virginia, behind Penn State linebacker commit Brandon Smith. Brian Dohn of 247 Sports compared Ford to Houston Texans bell-cow Lamar Miller.

As a senior, Ford eclipsed 2,000 yards, rushed for 32 touchdowns and averaged 8.36 yards per tote.

He held offers from 30 schools, including Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia and Notre Dame.

1. CB Keaton Ellis, 4 stars

Height/weight: 5-11/177

School (hometown): State College Area (State College, Pa.)

Synopsis: The hometown kid is moving 2.4 miles down the road, from State College’s Memorial Field to University Park’s Beaver Stadium.

He’s the first Little Lion to become a Nittany Lion since Alex Kenney in 2010. But Ellis wasn’t just handed this opportunity — he earned it.

His hand-timed 4.39-second 40 caught Penn State’s eye, and his athleticism was difficult to ignore. As a high school senior, he recorded four interceptions and nine pass deflections to go along with 51 tackles. He played both ways and also registered 888 receiving yards and 15 receiving touchdowns to complement his 263 rushing yards and pair of scores.

Unsurprisingly, Penn State was one of the first teams to recognize Ellis’ ability. And Ellis is hoping to make Happy Valley proud.

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