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Penn State Football Recruiting

23 Questions About Penn State Football’s 2023 Recruiting Class

Penn State coach James Franklin
Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin November 12, 2022 David Hague/NSN

Penn State football’s 2023 recruiting class is signed, sealed and on the verge of being delivered, at least for the most part. As with every class, questions surround this one. Here are 23 questions about Penn State’s Class of ‘23.


1. IS J’VEN WILLIAMS GOING TO BE A FIRST-ROUND PICK?

Let’s start with the five-star. For a while, fellow offensive lineman Alex Birchmeier was Penn State football’s highest-rated Class of 2023 commit. But as the 2022 season progressed, one of Pennsylvania’s own took the throne. Williams went from a player who wasn’t good enough to earn an offer from Penn State after a camp to one of the best players in the 2023 class, and he doesn’t figure to be slowing down anytime soon. After he committed to Penn State this past February, Williams, then a four-star recruit, talked to Nittany Sports Now about what it would mean to get that fifth star.

”I want to be a five-star recruit…,” Williams said. “To be a five-star recruit means that I’m going to be projected as a first-rounder in the NFL. So that would be on my mind. I’m not going to lie; I think that is special.”

He’s become a five-star recruit. Now, we’ll see if he can rich the other aforementioned goal.

2. COULD J’VEN WILLIAMS AND ALEX BIRCHMEIER BE FIRST ROUND PICKS

Make no mistake, Birchmeier is a stud. He was the first player to commit to Penn State football’s 2023 class.

He was once a five-star, and is still highly capable despite not having a five-star rating at the moment. Williams and Birchmeier are blue-chippers capable of playing anywhere on the line, at least in coach James Franklin’s mind. If stud tackle Olu Fashanu stays healthy enough next season, he’ll be a first-round pick in the 2024 Draft. Could Penn State have not one, but two linemen follow?

3. WHO WILL PLAY IN YEAR 1?

Not many true freshmen will get a lot of playing time their first season. It’s even less likely that anybody in Penn State football’s 2023 class will make the impact that Nick Singleton, Kaytron Allen and Abdul Carter did as true freshmen in 2022. But it’s always fun to wonder who might play in their first year. Could three-star Anthony Donkoh (6-foot-5, 320 pounds) get some starts the way Drew Shelton did this past season as a true freshman?

Could King Mack play a role at safety, with Ji’Ayir Brown departing? Could another safety, DaKarri Nelson’s versatility help him? Many feel the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Nelson will be a linebacker eventually, and in any case, he’s a good bet to play close to the line. We don’t know the answers to these questions yet, and it’s fun to speculate.

4. WILL ELLIOT WASHINGTON  BE PENN STATE’S NEXT STUD CORNER?

Washington played safety in high school, but the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder could well be a corner at the next level. Washington, a four-star from Venice High School in Florida, is four pounds lighter than Joey Porter Jr. and will be close to Porter’s 6-foot-2 height if he gets a little taller. Porter, who declared for the draft earlier this month and opted out of Penn State’s bowl game, is projected to be the first Penn State corner ever to go in the first-round. Kalen King, who figures to be back next season, is on his way to the league as well if he keeps up his stellar play.

Washington probably won’t start at Penn State for a while. The standard at cornerback for Penn State as high, so if Washington does indeed play CB in college, is he ready for the moment?

5. WILL MASON ROBINSON  CHANNEL CHOP ROBINSON?

They’re both from Maryland. They both have the same last name. They both had been committed elsewhere before signing with Penn State. They’re both defensive linemen. Those facts are set in stone. The question of whether Mason Robinson will one day impact Penn State’s defense the way Chop Robinson already has after one season remains to be answered.

6. DOES KAVEION HAVE THE KEYS?

Perhaps no Penn State recruiting story in its 2023 class (thus far) was more interesting than that of Kaveion Keys. Keys had been committed to North Carolina since August, de-committed in December and, after initially wanting to postpone his signing until the February Signing Day, signed with Penn State. Keys is intriguing and quite talented. We know that. We don’t know how he’ll fit in Penn State’s defense, and that ultimately will determined how he’s remembered by Penn State fans.

7. IS TONY ROJAS THE NEXT ONE?

Of Penn State football’s three linebacker signees in its 2023 class— all four-stars— Rojas is the highest-rated. The stud from Fairfax, Virginia, is Penn State’s highest-rated defensive signee according to 247Sports and the third-highest-rated overall behind Williams and Birchemier. Penn State is kinda known for star linebackers, and if ratings are to be believed, Rojas has the best chance of becoming the next star.

8. DOES KING MACK ‘HAVE IT ALL?’

Andrew Ivins, a Southeast Recruiting Analyst for 247Sports, compared Mack, a four-star safety, to a “a five-tool” baseball center fielder.

Mack’s new coach, Franklin, told him via zoom on Early Signing Day that he thinks Mack “has it all.” Mack, a star at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida is Penn State’s highest-rated of seven defensive back signees, it’s second-highest-rated defensive player and it’s fourth-highest-rated player overall. Mack certainly “had it all” in high school. Will Penn State fans be saying that about him after watching him play in college?

9. IS ANDREW RAPPLEYEA ‘MUTH-ESQUE?

Penn State is loaded at tight end, both for the present (Brenton Strange, Theo Johnson, Tyler Warren), and the future (Khalil Dinkins, Jerry Cross, Mega Barnwell, Joey Schlaffer and  Rappleyea). Of the three tight ends signed in Penn State’s 2023 Class, Rappleyea is the most celebrated. He’s a four-star recruit and the No. 7 tight end in the country according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. He’s also drawn comparisons with a past Penn State great who played the same position; current Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth.

Freiermuth happened to announce Rappleyea’s signing, which was a cool moment.

“Pat was probably a bigger kid,” Rappleyea’s high school coach, Milton Academy’s (MASS), Larry  Macdonald, told NSN back in April after Rappleyea committed to Penn State. “Not height-wise, but, you know, girth. But Freiermuth was clearly a lot more athletic than a typical high school football player.”

Rappleyea is quite athletic. But will he be a star at Penn State like Freiermuth was?

10. WHICH IN-STATE PROSPECTS WILL SHINE?

”The best in PA stay in PA” is how Franklin wants things to be. Of Penn State’s 22 signees, six are from Pennsylvania. Amongst them are the school’s top-rated signee, Williams, a four-star edge in Jameial Lyons (Philly) and a running back that went for more than 2,300 yards his junior year, London Montgomery. There’s a lot of promise from the Pennsylvania portion of this year’s signees. What will that promise turn into?

11. AND HOW ABOUT VIRGINIA?

Penn State also got six signees from Virginia.

Amongst them are Birchemier, Rojas and Keys.

Between PA and VA, there’s a lot of talent that will be a part of Penn State’s future. How many will be stars?

12. WILL DAKAARI NELSON STAY AT SAFETY?

Nelson wants to be a safety. He’s said that one of the main reasons he came to Penn State was because of safeties coach Anthony Poindexter and his ability to help players get to the NFL. Some believe that Nelson will become a full-time linebacker by the time he leaves Penn State. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he has the size to do that if need be. In any case, Nelson has the potential to be a stud at Penn State.

13. WILL TA’MERE ROBINSON’s  ‘IT’ FACTOR CARRY OVER TO THE BIG TEN?

Robinson is a unique individual. Many athletes get praise from their coaches and play well on the field, but how many are referred to as “probably the best human being on the face of this earth,” which is how Robinson’s high school head coach, Drew Moore, referred to him minutes after he committed to Penn State in July? How many recruits did Penn State coordinator Manny Diaz say the team needed to sign. Not wanted. Needed?

How many people of any age are depicted in a mural in their hometown? Robinson checks all of these boxes, and there’s plenty of reason to be excited about him. There’s also reason to be concerned. Robinson suffered a serious knee injury in the fall of his junior season at Brashear High School in Pittsburgh, and hasn’t played since. When he does play football again, what type of player will the college football world see?

14. WILL JOEY SCHLAFFER  MAKE HIS PRESENCE KNOWN?

Of Penn State’s three tight end signees, it feels like Schlaffer is being talked about the least.

Rappleyea is thought to be the most talented tight end of the trio. Barnwell intrigues fans with his size and versatility. With Schlaffer, the intrigue for people comes more from his background than what he can do on the field. Right now, a lot of Penn State fans know him best as the brother of former Penn State OL Michal Menet and for being local (Exeter Township High School in Reading).

Schlaffer would rather be known for his play, and he has a chance to make that happen at Penn State.

15. WILL CARMELO TAYLOR ELECTRIFY?

Penn State only has one receiver signed from this class. Although people would like to have more than that, the one that is signed has promise. His name is Carmelo Taylor, and he is fast. Very fast.

How fast is he? Well, Franklin told Taylor via Zoom signing day that he’s probably faster than former Penn State receiver KJ Hamler was at the same age. That’s pretty fast. Taylor also was a regional champion in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes in track. Again, fast. How will that translate to Bug Ten football? We shall see.

16. HOW WILL LONDON MONTGOMERY HEEL UP?

As mentioned above, Montgomery had more than 2,300 yards rushing as a junior at Scranton Prep High School. Franklin feels Montgomery could have gone for 3,000+ if he didn’t miss his entire senior season with an injury. Alas, Montgomery missed his entire senior season with an injury. Like Ta’Mere Robinson, the question now is if Montgomery can bounce back from that injury.

With Singleton and Allen both set to be back for next year (and the year after that,) we might not know exactly how healed— and how good— Montgomery is for a while.

17. WILL MEGA BARNWELL STAY AT TIGHT END?

Barnwell can play a lot of places, and until Early Signing Day, Penn State fans didn’t know where he’d initially play in college. Indeed, Penn State plans to play Barnwell at tight end initially, but as Franklin noted in his post-signing day presser, Barnwell is capable of playing defensive end, defensive tackle and offensive line, too. The aforementioned crowded Penn State tight ends room could also contribute to the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Barnwell eventually changing positions.

18. WILL ZION TRACY BECOME A 2-WAY PLAYER?

When talking with Tracy via Zoom on Early Signing Day, cornerbacks coach Terry Smith joked about Tracy playing on offense.

Although Penn State fully intends to play Tracy at cornerback, he did well on the other side of the ball in high school, and also contributed in the return game. Smith knows all about players like this. His stepson, Justin King, contributed on offense and defense at Penn State. Could Tracy do the same?

19. WILL JAXON SMOLIK FOLLOW DREW ALlAR?

The words “meteoric rise” might be overused, but in Smolik’s case, they’re appropriate. Smolik went from an relative unknown to a Penn State commit seemingly overnight. Now, he almost surely won’t be starting any games in 2023 and probably not 2024, either. There’s a gentleman by the name of Drew Allar that’s pretty good, and could well be one of the best to ever play at Penn State by the time his career is over. But Allar’s presence in Smolik’s freshman and sophomore seasons doesn’t mean the kid from Iowa isn’t worth keeping track of. With Christian Veilleux gone, the question of who will be Allar’s backup in 2023 is one worth pondering. It won’t be easy for Smolik to become Penn State’s QB2. Beau Pribula, a Class of 2022 sleeper, is still at Penn State, and he’d be the favorite right now to be Allar’s backup based on seniority. But Allar beat out the older Veilleux for the backup role this past season, and it’s possible for Smolik to do the same. In any case, Smolik wouldn’t be starting at Penn State until at least 2025 barring something unforeseen. We’ll see what his role is in 2023 and ‘24, and if he sticks around long enough to be Penn State’s QB1.

20. WHO IS THIS CLASS’S “SLEEPER?”

Franklin gave some insight into who he feels could be a sleeper in the 2023 Class. His name is Ty Blanding. Blanding, a three-star defensive tackle from Christ the King High School in Queens, New York, is somebody who Franklin feels “nobody’s talking about.”

“Watch the guy play linebacker,” Franklin told reporters in his post-signing day presser, “he is twitchy, quick. You watch him play defensive end; he’s twitchy and quick. Watch him play at defensive tackle, and he’s making plays, and he’s explosive.

“I think sometimes New York is under-recruited. People view it as a basketball state, but there’s been a bunch of really good players to come out of that state.”

Will Blanding indeed be the sleeper, or will somebody else emerge as that type of player?

21. HOW WILL THIS CLASS BE REMEMBERED?

Penn State’s 2022 recruiting class is already well on its way to carving out a great legacy after one year, mainly because of Singleton, Allen and  Carter. An obvious question with every recruiting class is how it will be remembered when the dust clears up. So what will become of the 2023 Class?

22. WILL THERE BE MORE?

Although Early Signing Day is the most celebrated event in recruiting, there’s another signing day in February. In the last recruiting cycle, Penn State landed Vega Ioane on the February Signing Day, so don’t be surprised if it makes a late addition for this cycle as well.

23. WHAT’S NEXT?

Penn State’s attention is now turned largely to the Class of 2024. Right now, Cooper Cousins is the only player committed to that class. Who will follow?

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