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Recruiting notebook: What could have been: Revisiting PSU’s heralded 2018 class

Photo by Penn State Athletics: WR Justin Shorter's time at Penn State was a major disasppointment

On the heels of back-to-back 11-win seasons, Penn State football appeared to be on the cusp of the college football playoffs. The Nittany Lions were clearly the top challenger to Ohio State for Big Ten supremacy, defeating the Buckeyes in 2016, and coming within a point of repeating that result in Columbus the following campaign.

Penn State was trending up, and the 2018 recruiting class provided optimism that the program could take the next step. Boosted by a trio of five-star recruits, the class ranked as the sixth-best in the entire NCAA, according to the 247 Sports composite. Additionally, it likely represented the best haul for the Nittany Lions since the turn of the century.

It’s now midway through the third season for the players from that class, and the results at Penn State this season have been historically bad. While the class cannot fully be evaluated for a few more seasons, it’s fair to say that the lofty expectations for the Class of 2018 have not been met, and a bevy of the players will not contribute on the field for the Nittany Lions in the years to come.

Here’s a closer look at how things have panned out for each member of this class to this juncture, as well as several names that nearly joined the blue and white.

5-Star DE Micah Parsons – National ranking No. 5

Parsons was the headliner of the class at the time, and he certainly lived up to the billing in his two seasons with the Nittany Lions. Although classified as a defensive end during his recruitment, Parsons shifted to linebacker, and instantly made an impact. In his two campaigns, he recorded 191 tackles, 6.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. Additionally, he was expected to be perhaps the top defensive player in all of college football for 2020, and could’ve ranked among the best ever to wear the blue and white. However, Parsons opted out prior to the season, citing COVID-19 concerns. He will be a sure-fire first-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft, and could be the first defensive player selected. But his absence on the PSU defense, both in terms of his production and his spirit, has left a massive void.

Verdict: Surpassed expectations

5-Star WR Justin Shorter – National ranking No. 8

At the time he signed, Shorter wasn’t far behind Parsons as a national recruit, and he was the top receiver in the entire class. But injuries limited his impact as a true freshman, and Shorter failed to have a breakthrough season when giving the opportunity in 2019. With 15 catches for 157 yards and no scores in his Penn State career, Shorter entered the transfer portal before the 2019 season even concluded, and moved on to the University of Florida for 2020. He was granted immediate eligibility for the Gators, and he’s caught 16 passes for 195 yards and three scores in a prolific passing offense this season. Although a few players have stepped up at receiver this season at Penn State, there’s little doubt Shorter could’ve been a big contributor in 2020 and beyond.

Verdict: Fell short of expectations

5-Star RB Ricky Slade – National ranking No. 27

Slade was expected to carry on the tradition of elite running backs at Penn State, following Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders, who he actually joined in the backfield as a freshman in 2018. Although he played quite a bit in his first year on campus and entered 2019 as the starter, Slade failed to become the featured back, and he fell behind both Journey Brown and Noah Cain on the depth chart as the season progressed. Despite a strong showing in the Cotton Bowl against Memphis, Slade elected to transfer this offseason to Old Dominion, which is not playing football this season. Slade, who would’ve likely played a key role this season with the absences of Brown and Cain if he had stayed at PSU, finished his career with the Nittany Lions with 92 carries for 471 yards and eight scores, as well as 13 receptions for 117 yards.

Verdict: Fell short of expectations

4-Star OT Rasheed Walker – National ranking No. 65

After redshirting and getting into some off-the-field trouble in 2018, Walker earned the starting spot at left tackle last season, and has been a staple in the lineup ever since. With 18 career starts, he’s expected to find a home in the NFL in the future. However, he’s also been part of the much-maligned unit that has been a major factor in the offensive shortcomings in 2020.

Verdict: Living up to expectations

4-Star DE Jayson Oweh – National ranking No. 76

Oweh was considered a high-ceiling project upon joining the Nittany Lions, as his physical tools were undeniable, but his football experience was minimal. As expected, Oweh didn’t play much as a freshman, but last year, he was a key reserve, and he’s ascended to the starting lineup this season. During his time in State College, he’s amassed 58 tackles, 7.0 sacks, and two forced fumbles. Because he’s likely to test incredibly well at the NFL Combine, Oweh has potential to be a first-round pick whenever he opts to head to the NFL.

Verdict: Living up to expectations

4-Star DT PJ Mustipher – National ranking No. 78

Mustipher hasn’t been spectacular and his numbers don’t jump out, but he’s been incredibly solid since he stepped on campus. Playing in the rotation at defensive tackle in his first two years, Mustipher cracked the starting lineup this season. In his career, he’s posted 73 tackles, 1.0 sack and two forced fumbles, and the pros should be in his future at some point.

Verdict: Living up to expectations

4-Star OT Nana Asiedu – National ranking No. 116

Asiedu’s career never started at Penn State, as he was forced to medically retire with a heart condition in 2018. He was not expected to play a key role in his first few years on campus, but by this season, he could’ve been in contention to play significant snaps had his career not been taken away from him.

Verdict: N/A

4-Star TE Zack Kuntz – National ranking No. 150

Kuntz was one of two marquee tight ends that signed with Penn State in 2018, but his talent has not translated to production yet. With a lanky frame when he signed, Kuntz was always expected to take awhile to fill out and develop into a real contributor. But to this point, he’s caught just three passes for 26 yards, and he’s been sidelined the past few games. With Pat Freiermuth almost certainly moving on to the NFL, Kuntz could be a major factor for PSU in 2021 and beyond, but he’s also at risk of getting passed on the depth chart by multiple players who are younger than him.

Verdict: Falling short of expectations

4-Star WR Jahan Dotson – National ranking No. 192

Dotson nearly left Pennsylvania for UCLA, but a late push by the Lions led to him joining Penn State. He has steadily increased his production in his three seasons, including a breakout campaign this year that has him in the conversation as one of the best receivers in the entire conference. He’s clearly the top wide receiver for the team, and if not for his bevy of highlight-reel plays, the offense would be even more anemic to this point. Dotson has played well enough that he could consider turning pro, but if he’s back at PSU for 2021, he’ll be the focal point of the entire offense. Thus far, he’s posted 71 catches for 1,218 yards and 11 scores in his career.

Verdict: Exceeding expectations

4-Star TE Pat Freiermuth – National ranking No. 224

Although slightly less heralded of a recruit than Kuntz, Freiermuth was the more college-ready prospect at tight end for the 2018 class. That has certainly proven accurate, as he almost immediately became a staple of the Nittany Lions’ offense, and has further developed since his freshman campaign. Freiermuth passed on the 2020 NFL Draft, electing to return to Penn State for his third season. After a strong start to the year, he was sidelined for Saturday’s game against Iowa, and will also miss the remainder of the season with injury. Unless a lengthy recovery alters his outlook, Freiermuth is likely to turn pro in 2021, and could be among the top two players taken at his position. His career marks – 92 catches, 1,185 yards, and 16 scores – place him in the discussion for the best tight end in Penn State history.

Verdict: Exceeded expectations

4-Star OC Juice Scruggs – National ranking No. 233

Scruggs provided Penn State with one of the top high-school linemen in Pennsylvania when he committed, but an automobile accident prior to the 2019 season severely stunted his progress. Thankfully, Scruggs recently returned to the field for PSU. He’s played only four games, but that should be attributed primarily to his health setback. With some of the struggles the Nittany Lions have had along the offensive line this season, Scruggs could certainly be a factor to earn snaps this season and beyond if he proves to be back to full strength.

Verdict: Incomplete

4 -Star ILB Jesse Luketa – National ranking 238

Luketa, a Canadian import who played high-school football in Erie, has earned an increased role throughout his tenure at Penn State. After playing on special teams initially and then as a reserve linebacker, Luketa has been a starter this season. Thus far, the linebacking corps has not been able to fill the voids of Parsons and Cam Brown to replicate last year’s play. But Luketa, who has posted 62 tackles and five passes defended in his career, is a vocal leader for the defense, and he’ll likely be a key factor for the rest of this season and next year, as well.

Verdict: Living up to expectations

4-Star ILB Nick Tarburton – National ranking No. 270

Tarburton made the opposite transition of Parsons, moving from linebacker to defensive end at Penn State. After playing sparingly as a true freshman in 2018, Tarburton was sidelined all last year because of injury. He’s just recently returned to the field, and picked up his first career tackle last weekend against Iowa. Tarburton drew the praise of many of his teammates during the offseason, and a breakout campaign could still be on the horizon.

Verdict: Incomplete

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4-Star WR Daniel George – National ranking No. 274

George was the third-ranked of the trio of receivers in the Class of 2018, and he’s yet to find his rhythm in the offense. Despite earning starts each of the past two seasons, he’s posted just 18 catches for 285 yards and one score in his career. That touchdown came in 2018 and was notable, as it set a program record on a 95-yard grab from Sean Clifford. Dotson and freshman Parker Washington have solidified two of the receiver spots, but George could be soon running out of opportunities to hold down the other opening.

Verdict: Falling short of expectations

4-Star CB Jordan Miner – National ranking No. 349

Just like Asiedu, Miner had to hang up the cleats before he ever played for Penn State, as a result of a heart condition. While the Nittany Lions feel good about their quartet of second-year cornerbacks, Miner could’ve potentially bolstered a secondary that has not yet lived up to expectations this season.

Verdict: N/A

3-Star DE Judge Culpepper – National ranking No. 402

Culpepper, whose father played in the NFL, joined Miner as Florida natives who made the trek to State College for their college career. A defensive end prospect in high school, Culpepper has bulked up and moved inside, and has played a reserve role the past two seasons. Although his seven tackles and 1.0 sack don’t jump off the page, he’s been serviceable in his role to this point, and could be in the discussion to start next year.

Verdict: Living up to expectations

3-Star CB Trent Gordon – National ranking No. 422

One of two players in the class who hailed from Texas, Gordon saw moderate playing time in 2019. However, his shift from corner to safety didn’t yield meaningful snaps in 2020, and earlier this week, Gordon entered the transfer portal, likely ending his career at Penn State. With both starting safeties, Lamont Wade and Jaquan Brisker, potentially moving on after this season, the Lions could have a need at the position, but apparently Gordon won’t be part of the solution. His career statline includes 21 tackles and five passes defended.

Verdict: Fell short of expectations

3-Star DT Aeneas Hawkins – National ranking No. 449

Hawkins, who might best be remembered for his humorous commitment video, has yet to crack the depth chart along the defensive line. He’s played in just one game in his career, and although there could be openings in 2021 with Antonio Shelton and possibly PJ Mustipher moving on, there may be several other players above him in the pecking order.

Verdict: Falling short of expectations

3-Star S Isaiah Humphries – National ranking No. 447

Humphries, a legacy commit for Penn State, left the program after his first season. After transferring to Cal, Humphries made national news with allegations of illegal acts committed against him during hazing incidents. While those accusations and the case still looms over the program, Humphries has not yet played for the Golden Bears.

Verdict: N/A

3-Star OLB Charlie Katshir – National ranking No. 542

Katshir, another Pennsylvania product in the class, has slowly carved out a role for himself in the Nittany Lions’ defense. While there are more heralded linebackers in the classes that followed him, he still could factor into the team’s plans over the next few seasons. So far, he’s registered 10 tackles and one forced fumble.

Verdict: Living up to expectations

3-Star OT Bryce Effner – National ranking No. 635

Effner has played in just three games in his career to this point. But when senior Will Fries shifted inside to guard and Caeden Wallace took over at right tackle, Effner ascended to the backup on the outside. His path to a starting spot this year and beyond may be blocked if everyone on the line remains healthy, but he at least seems to provide depth at tackle.

Verdict: Living up to expectations

3-Star QB Will Levis – National ranking No. 652

Levis definitely was not the top target at QB in the class for PSU, but his commitment provided the team with a ton of physical potential to mold. After 2.5 seasons, Levis still has those physical tools, but he’s not been able to translate that to sustained success as a passer. In 2019, he showed his value as a runner, and recently, he supplanted Sean Clifford as the starting QB. That opportunity was short lived, though, as he was pulled in the second half against Iowa, and could once again be behind Clifford on the depth chart. To this point, Levis is 55-of-94 passing for 548 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s thrived as a runner, with 86 carries for 309 yards and three scores. As the Nittany Lions search for a long-term answer at QB, Levis will need to make significant strides as a passer, or else his ceiling is likely as a backup who can sub in for packages.

Verdict: Living up to expectations

3-Star K Jake Pinegar – Nationally unranked

Pinegar garnered a scholarship, which is often a rarity for a kicker. His career has been up and down, with 2019 serving as a high point, but he’s seemingly regressed this season. Pinegar is 31-of-43 on field goal attempts, and 119-of-124 on extra points. Additionally, he’s given way to Jordan Stout on long field goals, as well as kickoffs. If Pinegar doesn’t return to his accuracy from 2019, his role could be in jeopardy moving forward.

Verdict: Falling short of expectations

The ones who got away

An evaluation of the Penn State 2018 recruiting class wouldn’t be complete without highlighting other players who were once members of the class. The group endured six public decommitments (seven if Micah Parsons’ original decommitment is counted), as well as another player who backed off his silence pledge to Penn State.

Most notably, quarterback Justin Fields was a member of the class for several months. He ended that pledge, however, and ultimately signed with his home state Georgia Bulldogs, ranked as a five-star recruit and the second-best player in the country. After one season with Georgia, he transferred to Ohio State, and has become a Heisman Trophy frontrunner, and a candidate to go as the first overall selection in the NFL Draft. During his career, Fields is 355-of-506 for 4,809 yards, 58 touchdowns and six interceptions, and he’s added 221 carries for 885 yards and 17 scores.

Fields and offensive tackle Chris Bleich were likely the only two players who officially decommitted because of football reasons, as the Pennsylvania lineman, who was ranked No. 458 nationally, signed with Florida, where he played in 13 games, including eight starts. This past offseason, Bleich transferred to Syracuse, but he’s sitting out the season after his transfer waiver was denied by the NCAA.

Two other players, offensive tackle Antawn Reed and athlete Shaquon Anderson-Butts, seemingly had to break their commitment because of academic issues. Reed, ranked 425th nationally, signed with Western Michigan, but instead attended ASA College Brooklyn, where he was a second-team all-conference player in 2019. Anderson-Butts, meanwhile, signed with Iowa Western, but played just one game there, and has since returned to Pennsylvania to play at Lackawanna College, which did not have a fall season in 2020.

Another pair of pledges were left out of the Class of 2018 as a result of off-the-field issues. Safety Isheem Young and defensive end Dorian Hardy were both highly-regarded prospects when they committed to the Nittany Lions. However, Hardy was allegedly involved in a fight that led to his removal from the class. His recruiting ranking plummeted as a result, and the three-star signed with East Carolina, where he’s recorded just one tackle and has battled injuries.

Young, meanwhile, was one of the top safeties in the country until he was allegedly involved in a robbery. His legal issues forced him out of Penn State’s plans, and he reclassified to 2019, where his ranking dropped precipitously to 707th nationally. He signed with Iowa State, and has registered 32 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble, and four passes defended this season.

Lastly, defensive end Tyreke Smith signed with Ohio State, although he allegedly had a silent verbal commitment to Penn State before flipping to the Buckeyes. Smith, a four-star recruit who was ranked No. 34 nationally, has notched 25 tackles and three sacks in his career in Columbus.

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Commentator, host and writer for high-school and college sports, including @WestmorelandSN, @CarlowCeltics, @PACSports, @PSNKsports and Latrobe Bulletin.

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