About one year ago at this time, Penn State fans had visions of a third straight 10-win season and the elite level building blocks of special 2020 recruiting class. Just a couple of weeks later, Kentucky killed the former, while the latter began to unravel slowly.
On Wednesday, 27 high school seniors signed binding Letters of Intent and became the newest members of the Nittany Lion team. That group of recruits currently ranks No. 13 in the 247Sports Composite Rankings and is full of plenty of potential difference makers.
That word, potential, is one that feels like it is getting thrown around a lot more with this class than in previous groups. Part of that is inherent in the continued physical development of teenagers. But another part of it feels like the fallout from a class that at one time figured to include the top two players in the country.
Recruiting success is not everything, of course. Physical development, coaching, and a little luck goes into turning these athletically gifted high schoolers into future All-Americans. But the stars also matter. The teams that sign the best classes compete for conference and national titles, and those players turn into NFL stars at much greater rates. It's also why a group that contains just over 40% four and five-star players feels good but not great to many fans.
The story of this class goes deeper than some of those raw numbers though. Consider for a moment that since James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley, his classes have ranked Nos. 24, 14, 20, 15, 6, and 12 nationally. With a few chips still left to fall, this group is currently ranked 13th overall. It is, in fact, a testament to the work that Franklin and his coaching staff have done in six years that a group that ranks among the top 10% nationally is now considered a letdown. The bar has no doubt been raised.
The challenge, of course, comes from the fact that the Lions share a division with Ohio State, which has been a fixture in the top-five nationally for years. I often say that there isn't a huge difference between the classes ranked between six and 15 or so, but there is absolutely a gap from those top classes to the second tier. Getting into that rare air on a consistent basis is the next, and most difficult task for Franklin and Co.
It's why the loss of players like Julian Fleming, Bryan Bresee, Mekhail Sherman, Antoine Sampah, and others hurt so much. Those types of difference-making players are the very fine line between great, and elite.
But at the same time, the 27 newest Nittany Lions represent an immense amount of potential, cliche as the term may be when discussing recruiting. Despite the majority ranking below blue-chip status, the benefit of a more thorough ranking means the overall rank of the class is much more reflective of the deep pool of talent heading to Happy Valley. Of the 27 signees in the class, 18 of them rank within the top 441 nationally. Two three-star prospects (Joseph Johnson and Jimmy Christ) are hundredths of points away from earning a fourth star, and a handful more are just slightly further back.
Ultimately we'll be able to tell the story of this class in two or three years as their collegiate football paths come more into focus. But despite missing a few major former targets, the pieces are in place to continue to build up the Nittany Lion program. The group just needs to live up to one thing.