Penn State Football

Q&A: Breaking down Penn State’s National Signing Day status with 247 Sports expert Tyler Donohue

Penn State head coach James Franklin is hoping to sign a few more prospects on Wednesday’s National Signing Day.
Penn State head coach James Franklin is hoping to sign a few more prospects on Wednesday’s National Signing Day.

James Franklin and Penn State’s staff picked up commitments from 2020 and 2021 prospects last weekend — but Wednesday’s focus is on 2019.

The Nittany Lions secured 19 signatures in December’s early signing period; 18 were announced at the time, with defensive tackle D’Von Ellies declaring his already-made choice at January’s Polynesian Bowl. Since the Citrus Bowl, three-star defensive linemen Smith Vilbert and Joseph Appiah Darkwa picked Penn State, leaving a few spots still available in the class.

So, how will Franklin fill them? There are several pieces in play, and decisions will be made Wednesday. Before the hats are selected, we spoke to 247 Sports reporter Tyler Donohue to break down Penn State’s National Signing Day status.

CDT: What’s the read on Florida State commit Nick Cross? And how big of a get would this be for Penn State given its safety situation?

Donohue: At the safety position, regardless if they add Nick Cross, I think (current signee) Jaquan Brisker is still going to be the newcomer in the spotlight because he’s already had two years at the college level. But I think to add him to this defensive back class would take it from a really strong DB class to easily among the nation’s best, if it wasn’t there already.

With Cross, there’s a reason why he’s considered a top-100 prospect, and he attends one of the top powerhouse programs in the region (DeMatha Catholic in Maryland). So anytime you can get a player of that caliber from that kind of program that you want to go back to year after year, it’s a huge step forward.

In terms of his recruitment, we’ve heard it from Franklin and from other coaches across the country: They want you to sign in that early signing period. And if you don’t, they think it’s an obvious red flag. But where Florida State stands right now, the jury is out on their whole coaching regime because it was such a disaster in Year 1. So there’s been less heat on Nick Cross for not finalizing plans in December because of that. He listened to Georgia late and made the trip to Penn State in the final weekend.

For Penn State, if they’re able to close this recruitment, it’s going to be because they convinced him that it was worth making the call back to the Florida State staff and saying, ‘No.’ And that’s a difficult phone call for any kid to make. He’s been committed there for five months. So did Penn State win over Nick Cross and the family? That’s ultimately the most important component here in this particular pursuit.

CDT: Aside from Cross, is there one guy who you’re really looking forward to seeing what their decision is?

Donohue: TJ Jones, he would be the second receiver in this class. They lost Emery Simmons (to North Carolina) right before the early signing period and ended up with just John Dunmore. TJ Jones, he’s down to three schools: Penn State, Indiana and Texas A&M. But his last visit of the process was to Happy Valley, and this is another (RB coach Ja’Juan) Seider special. Signs are pointing toward him picking Penn State on Wednesday morning.

That’s the most straight-forward situation. Whereas, you’ve got guys like Doug Nester and Nick Cross, who are considering flipping from (Ohio State and Florida State, respectively). And there are some players who are more pie in the sky at this point. Dawand Jones, the offensive lineman from Indianapolis, and Brett Seither, a tight end from Florida who is a late target for Penn State, those would be surprises on the fringe.

But I think TJ Jones is where people should look if people want positive news. And I feel pretty good that they’re going to get it.

CDT: With Joseph Darkwa, a kid coming from Germany is kind of new territory for Penn State and this staff. What’s to know about Darkwa?

Donohue: The thing with him and Smith Vilbert, to kind of tie those two together, neither of those guys were on any FBS football recruiting radar this time last year. They had to pack two years’ worth of recruiting process into a matter of months. Many of their offers came either late in the season or after the season. That was the case with Penn State with both of these guys.

With Darkwa, you’re getting an international transition. And with Vilbert, you’re getting a guy who was primarily focused on basketball during his prep career. Both of them are long-term investments. You’re not getting players who you think will get on the field anytime soon. But much like Jayson Oweh last year, you look at the ceiling in place and what Sean Spencer is willing to sink his teeth into, and you like what you could get in the long run there.

CDT: You mentioned Vilbert and Darkwa getting recruited really late. How does the early signing period affect the coaches’ approach to those kind of players? Because when the early signing period is over, these leftover prospects — who might not have been on the radar before — are getting a lot of attention at once.

Donohue: The guys who are on the bubble become the guys who are on the top of your board fast. Overnight, really. You have to enter the new year with a new mindset and shuffle things. You either got everyone you wanted to get, or you missed out on specific targets, and you have to bump everyone up to account for that.

Vilbert is a good example of that, a guy who soared on their priority list. And Darkwa, that’s a guy who got an offer in January. That tells you what you need to know. And Daequan Hardy, he got an offer less than 24 hours before National Signing Day. Your wish list gets very condensed.

The most important thing is, the staff has to be honest with themselves and with these recruits. If you feel like you’re losing a grip on a recruitment, there’s just not enough time to fight your way out of a hole. You’ve got to be a little more proactive post-early signing period in terms of cutting bait and shifting focus. Because before you know it, February is upon you. And once you get past this, there’s no turning back.