From June 8 up until Penn State’s freshmen officially reported on June 24, we devoted one day to each of the Nittany Lions’ 17 incoming freshmen. Our intent was to describe just what makes each player unique — and, in some cases, what drives them off the field.
We spoke to nearly 100 sources, we spent hours interviewing the players and, in the end, we aggregated all that in one place. Right here.
These Nittany Lions are the future of the program, and they haven’t been shy about their goal: Win a national championship. Get to know them a little better:
Day 1: OL C.J. Thorpe (4 stars) — The 314-pound lineman grew up in the shadow of Heinz Field. But, Thorpe’s father said, “Pitt was never really a contender.” Thorpe was always a Penn State fan.
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Day 2: WR Mac Hippenhammer (3 stars) — The Indiana native attended the same high school as Big Ten and two-sport legend Rod Woodson, and he’s hoping to follow in the Hall of Famer’s footsteps. Hippenhammer is no slouch in his second sport, baseball. “He does things on a baseball field that we haven’t seen in 28 years,” his coach said.
Day 3: OL Robert Martin (3 stars) — In eighth grade, Martin was ranked as one of the nation’s top linebacker prospects. But his high school coach saw a future Div. I offensive lineman, and Martin bought into the advice that appeared to go against the grain. “If you’re building an offensive tackle, he’s the model you want,” his high school position coach said.
Day 4: DL Damion Barber (4 stars) — What kind of player could the Nittany Lions be getting? We surveyed some of the opposing coaches who had to go against him his senior season, when he racked up 27 tackles for loss. The consensus: “He was just an animal.”
Day 5: LB Ellis Brooks (4 stars/3 stars) — Brooks just exudes leadership. He was a Corps of Cadets first lieutenant in high school, along with being a team captain on the football team. “I know God blessed me with great leadership abilities,” Brooks said, “and there’s no reason I should waste those.”
Day 6: DL Corey Bolds (4 stars/3 stars) — Bolds used to be the kid with the diamond earring and the afro but, after some tough love and the realization he needed to take football more seriously, the high schooler beared down and changed his ways. The result? “He was doubled probably 75 percent of the time or more and was still extremely effective.”
Day 7: DB Tariq Castro-Fields (4 stars/3 stars) — The Maryland native grew up idolizing the Washington Redskins’ Sean Taylor, and he still remembers that day in second grade when Taylor died tragically of gunshot wounds. Castro-Fields has patterned his game off Taylor and, to this day, still watches his film before every game. “That’s something I’ll always take with me.”
Day 8: DB D.J. Brown (3 stars) — We decided to do a Q&A with the personable Brown, and he shared everything from his favorite athlete (LeBron) to his claim as the world’s greatest water polo player. It also sounds as if he’ll get along just fine with film junkie John Reid: “That’s something I take pride in myself, watching film and knowing what’s going to happen.”
Day 9: DB Jonathan Sutherland (4 stars/3stars) — It was a long journey, both literally and figuratively, for Sutherland to go from football in Canada to the U.S. His talent was evident from the time he was 12, however, and Sutherland knows his job isn’t finished: “The next step is to go into Penn State and compete.”
Day 10: WR Cameron Sullivan-Brown (3 stars) — He’s never been one to back down from a challenge or to take the easy path. Instead of going to a high school powerhouse, he decided to go to one on the decline — and build it back up. Instead of just trying to pad his stats, he looked forward the whole offseason to going against the nation’s best. “I embrace the pressure.”
Day 11: OL Des Holmes (3 stars) — The in-state product is the definition of a late bloomer, and he’s one of the popular picks to be the sleeper of the class. His great uncle might’ve summed it up best: “Not too long ago he was a little fat guy sitting around, trying to find what his strengths and weaknesses were. And then all of a sudden, the guy got bigger, stronger, quicker.”
Day 12: DB Donovan Johnson (4 stars/3 stars) — He’s from Michigan, but he swears he’s not sour about Michigan and Michigan State passing on him. He wants to go on his own path. And his coach says he has the talent to back that up: “He’s such a great all-around athlete ... (Y)ou’re like, ‘Wow, how did you do that?’”
Day 13: QB Sean Clifford (4 stars) — The first commit of the class has been the jell that’s helped keep this group together. In this in-depth Q&A, he shares why he wanted to commit first, his goals at Penn State — and some off-the-field things, like his favorite Penn State place to eat and what he’s binge-watching on Netflix.
Day 14: LB Brailyn Franklin (3 stars) — Meet the “Slash” player of the 2017 class, the athlete who’s played QB/RB/WR/DE/NT/LB/DB. Franklin was a 200-pound high school NT in high school, who still dominated. “They had 300-pound kids on the line,” one of Franklin’s teammates said, “and he’s throwing them back and slamming the quarterback.”
Day 15: DL Fred Hansard (4 stars/3 stars) — James Franklin can thank one of his former East Stroudsburg teammates for tipping him off about Hansard. But it wasn’t just what Hansard did on the field that impressed him — it was what he did off the field. “I got a lot of respect for Fred for being that kind of a person,” the coach, Franklin’s former teammate, said.
Day 16: RB Journey Brown (3 stars) — Brown turned in one of the most spectacular performances in any level of football two years ago when in one game — one game — he rushed for 722 yards and 10 TDs. This is an oral history of that game, along with a 5-minute video of each and every one of his 30 carries that day. “If you would’ve told me those numbers before the game,” Brown said. “I would’ve just said you sound dumb right now.”
Day 17: DL Yetur Gross-Matos (4 stars) — His father died trying to save him from drowning. His older brother died in front of him after being struck by lightning during a Little League game. Gross-Matos has had to endure a lot in life, but he’s fighting through that pain. He took on the last name of his father, who passed away when he was 2 years old, and he says his brother is still with him wherever he goes. “Everything that he’s doing,” Robert Matos said, “he’s doing it for his brother.”