Since James Franklin’s arrival, Penn State’s recruiting efforts in the secondary have been cyclical. And the Nittany Lions’ 2019 crop of corners and safeties might turn out to be the staff’s best yet.
Franklin, coordinator Brent Pry and assistants Terry Smith and Tim Banks inked five defensive backs on Wednesday: Four-star cornerbacks Keaton Ellis, Joey Porter Jr. and Marquis Wilson, four-star safety Tyler Rudolph and JUCO safety Jaquan Brisker. The players’ average 247 Sports prospect rating is .8960, above Penn State’s 2015 class that included John Reid and Garrett Taylor.
Penn State needed this strong secondary cycle after a less-than-ideal return on its 2018 crop. Trent Gordon played this season and kept his redshirt as a true freshman, but safety Isaiah Humphries transferred already and Jordan Miner was forced to retire due to medical reasons.
With those losses and the impending departures of seniors Amani Oruwariye and Nick Scott, these incoming signees have a chance to play right away. And not just in garbage time.
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“Probably half of these guys are going to not redshirt and play through the year. And who knows? Maybe one or two of them are going to become starters,” Smith said of the entire 2019 class, before addressing the secondary specifically. “We think some of those guys can make immediate impacts.”
Much of the buzz has surrounded State College native Keaton Ellis and Joey Porter Jr., the son of the former Steelers great. But Rudolph is the highest-rated defensive back in the Nittany Lions’ class.
A 6-foot-1, 205-pound safety, Rudolph is the No. 263 prospect in the country and No. 22 at his position. Franklin said he and the staff “fell in love” with Rudolph and Wilson — a pair of Connecticut natives — when they camped at Penn State in July 2017.
“He ran a 4.4 at our camp a few summers ago,” Smith said of Rudolph. “And he’s a big kid, a 200-pound kid. He’s going to bring some physicality.”
Joey Porter Jr.
Porter Jr. has “the longest arms you’ll ever see,” per Franklin. That will come in handy.
The No. 34 cornerback in the country was a star at North Allegheny High School in Pittsburgh, where he had 10 interceptions his final two seasons. And Smith noted that after his high school career ended, he’s had “an advantage that a lot of kids don’t get.”
“Every day since his season ended, he’s down at the Steelers facility,” Smith said of Porter Jr., whose father is Pittsburgh’s outside linebackers coach. “He’s sitting in meetings. He’s training with the strength staff. He’s running routes against Antonio Brown every single day, and he’s been a sponge to so much knowledge and information.
“We feel like he’s going to come in much more prepared than your average kid. But at the end of the day, he’s still an 18-year-old kid that’s going to have to grow and get stronger and faster and learn our way, learn our system, learn our techniques, learn what we do and try to make sense of it in our terminology.”
The hometown kid drew praise on Wednesday.
Franklin said Ellis “didn’t get all the attention he probably deserved,” while Smith echoed that sentiment, singling the State College corner out as someone who flew under the radar.
“We feel really good about him,” Smith said. “We offered him basically before anyone else in the country offered him, and we were right. He turned out to have a super senior season. We’re looking forward to him coming here in a few weeks. And there’s an opportunity for him to make an immediate impact.”
During the Nittany Lions’ Signing Day “War Room,” Franklin called every prospect to welcome them to the program. When he chatted with Wilson, he joked that the Connecticut native will need to hit the weight room upon arrival.
But the 175-pound early enrollee won’t want to bulk up too much; Wilson is a flexible playmaker. The No. 36 corner in the country logged 51 tackles and four interceptions, as well as 765 receiving yards, in his junior season.
“He’s probably the best all-around athlete of them all,” Smith said. “Pretty much can do anything. He’s the guy who can go out on the playground basketball court and run and jump and dunk any way you want.”
Brisker is the only three-star defensive back to sign with the Nittany Lions. But oddly enough, he seemingly has the best odds to land a starting spot.
Brisker, a first-team JUCO All-American, led Lackawanna C.C. with 64 tackles in 2018, including 17 tackles for loss and six sacks. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder — who held offers from Alabama, Mississippi State, West Virginia and Utah — was described by Franklin as “a pretty skilled guy.”
“He’s going to have an opportunity to come in and compete for a safety job,” the head coach said.
Added Smith: “With Nick Scott leaving, it creates an opportunity, an opening on paper. He’ll have an opportunity.”