Linebacker U? What Has Gone Wrong with Penn State's Linebacker Recruiting?

By Nick Polak on January 26, 2017 at 8:00 am
Oct 22, 2016; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Jason Cabinda (40) during the first quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Ohio State 24-21. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The Premise

For multiple years now, Penn State has struggled to consistently recruit high-end talent at the linebacker position. On the surface, that seems strange for a school with the history of the "Linebacker U" moniker attached to it.

One common theory tossed around by fans, is that this current coaching staff seems to believe in recruiting linebackers who have the versatility to be movable chess pieces on the field, as opposed to true inside and outside linebackers. The now decommitted Dylan Rivers is a great example. Penn State saw him as a middle linebacker, despite most things pointing to him being better suited as a SAM or WIL.

I'm here to offer up a different theory. While James Franklin and his staff have done some great work in beginning to expand Penn State's recruiting footprint, the process of truly starting to build pipelines in other states takes more time and more winning seasons. My theory, which is one shared by a few different members of the Roar Lions Roar staff, is that Penn State has had far fewer elite-level linebacker prospects available to them within their normal recruiting grounds for some time now. This seems to be directly correlated to the sharp decrease in the level of talent brought in at the position.

The Data

We focused solely on the blue chip linebacker recruits all the way back to 2010 (blue chip meaning four and five star prospects). Does this mean that the only recruits who matter are four and five star players? Absolutely not. But infusing more talent leads to winning, so no matter how great you think your team is at turning walk-ons and two/three stars into All-Americans, there's a reason why basically every team to win a championship over the past two decades has been a recruiting superpower.

Going back to 2010 and including the current 2017 class, there have been exactly 293 blue chip recruits classified as linebackers by the 247Sports Composite rankings. Of those 293, Penn State has gone on to sign just four of them. That fact alone is staggering. To illustrate even more clearly how lacking Nittany Lion linebacker recruiting has been, the school hasn't pulled in a top-25 linebacker in the country since 2010, when they got Khairi Fortt (No. 7) and Mike Hull (No. 16).

Here's how that compares to some of Penn State's common opponents and some of the nation's top programs over that same time span.

School # of 4/5 Star Linebacker Signees
Alabama 23
Ohio State 18
Texas 16
Georgia 14
Florida State 14
Michigan 14
Clemson 12
USC 11
Auburn 11
Notre Dame 9
Michigan State 5
Penn State 4

Penn State is getting lapped by all the programs that they have so staunchly insisted over the years are not the real Linebacker U. To find the reason why, let's take a closer look at the map of where these recruits played their high school football.

The map seems to make plenty of sense. It's common knowledge that the southern part of the country typically produces more top-end talent than the northern states, and the map reflects as much. But take a closer look at Pennsylvania.

PA map
Pennsylvania has not been a hotbed for highly-regarded linebackers.

Of those 293 blue chip linebackers, just seven of them have come from Pennsylvania (the green and yellow markers on the bottom right both fall within the Delaware border). In other terms, just 2.4% of the top-rated linebackers in the country hailed from the Keystone State, and only one was outside of the greater Pittsburgh area.

The Problem

Here is where I believe the problem lies. While the Nittany Lions have done a great job recruiting areas such as New Jersey and Maryland, especially under Franklin, those two states can hardly be considered home runs for Penn State. Both not only contain Big Ten programs of their own (even if they only recently gained that conference affiliation), but they also are some of the most hotly-contested recruiting areas of the country. Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Alabama, Penn State, Miami and many others are serial recruiters of the Garden State and the DMV.

Of those 293 blue chip linebackers, just seven of them have come from Pennsylvania.

The other issue here for Penn State, aside from those New Jersey and Maryland recruits, is that the majority of the other highly-rated linebackers in the north fall squarely in the recruiting footprints of other national programs. Detroit, Columbus, Cleveland and Indianapolis all have seen their fair share of blue chippers, but of course, it's very tough to pull those kids away from Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, respectively.

Even Pennsylvania has been a struggle for the Nittany Lions. Six of the seven blue chip linebackers hail from the Pittsburgh area. As much as Penn State fans would like to believe that they dominate the state, that hasn't always included Pittsburgh. Even if PSU fans don't want to admit it, Pitt is a big threat when it comes to WPIAL prospects. Despite the fact that they're coached by a crazy person who will end up at Purdue one day, whether he likes it or not, playing for the hometown team is something that will always appeal to numerous recruits, regardless of the state of the team. Additionally, Notre Dame and Ohio State recruit the state's most river-filled city very well. High school athletes in Pittsburgh are far from, and will likely never be, a slam dunk for Penn State. This presents plenty of problems on a daily basis for recruiting, but as far as linebacker recruiting has gone, there have been no gimmes for the Nittany Lions, and its shown.

So What Does This All Mean?

First off, it means that complaints of Brent Pry being a subpar recruiter are probably a little unfair. He hasn't exactly had a ton to work with, but he's clearly put in the effort. He has been spotted on numerous in-home visits both during and after the season, and recruits often speak highly of Penn State's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.

What it might mean, however, is that the coaching staff may be forced to start altering their linebacker recruiting strategy. Whether that means being more aggressive in offering players in different regions of the country before they've done a fully-thorough examination of the player, ignoring their preferences for certain types of linebackers, or simply offering good football players and letting the rest figure itself out, is yet to be seen.

Penn State has been able to survive during this time period of linebacker recruiting deficiencies thanks to great coaching jobs by Pry and his predecessors. But the depth chart has been getting thinner and thinner every year. Some of the roadblocks along the way have been unavoidable. 

Former Penn State linebacker Troy Reeder
Troy Reeder (Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

Troy Reeder transferring to Delaware was unforeseen. Josh Barajas flipping to hometown Notre Dame was bad enough, but it was the butterfly effect that it had on the staff's linebacker recruiting efforts elsewhere, specifically Darrin Kirkland, that really hurt the 2015 class. Dylan Rivers decommitting a week before Signing Day is just the latest setback in a series of disappointing developments.

Despite the unfortunate nature of these complications for Penn State, the facts remain the same. The depth chart is barren, and needs serious replenishing. The degree to which the coaching staff is able to do so may go a long way towards determining the future success or failure of the defense.

The overarching question, though, will be whether or not the staff can go out of their recruiting comfort zone to get the job done, because the confines of Pennsylvania have proven to be quite unfriendly.

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