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James Franklin Breaks Down This Penn State Recruiting Class

Penn State coach James Franklin

Here’s what Penn State coach James Franklin had to say about the 22 players that have signed to the school’s 2023 recruiting class. 

Franklin talked about 11 of these players extensively in Franklin’s post-Signing Day presser, and those 11, plus 11 that Franklin didn’t talk about extensively, heard from Franklin.

TE Mathias “Mega” Barnwell • 6-6, 250 • Fredericksburg, Virginia (Riverbend)

Franklin: As you guys know, Mega committed to us in, like, fourth grade. We tried to convince him not to commit when he committed. Felt like we wanted to make sure that they were comfortable and truly knew what that was. I think it was actually ninth grade. Then his eyes started to wonder a little bit in 10th grade and then ended up committing back to us, which doesn’t always happen. Obviously, we’ve been able to get to know him and the family really well. We have recruited him to play tight end. We did recruit a number of tight ends in this class. But to your point, he does have position flexibility. He’s the tallest guy in this class. We do think he can play defensive end. We do think he can play defensive tackle. We think he can play tight end for sure, and then I think there’s also a chance that he can play on the offensive line. Now, most high school kids don’t want to hear that they’re being projected to move to offensive line until you show them how many first-round draft choices on the offensive line started at tight end. That’s usually a pretty good story to tell. But at the end of the day, we want guys to play the position they want to play. A lot of times, guys will kind of see that on their own that they need to move. But, to be honest with you, we just wanted him in our program. He’s a really good athlete, great family, really good student with position flexibility. He may be a tight end here for four-to-five years or a number of other positions, and we’ll just see how the genetics play out. But we’ve been very honest and open with the kid and the family that some of these things are possibilities. But, again, we wouldn’t move him unless him and the family were on board with the decision.

OL Alex Birchmeier • 6-foot-5, 285 pounds • Ashburn, Virginia (Broad Run)

Franklin: Literally, I’ve never had a kid, and the parents say “do not come and see us at the school. Do not come to games. We’re good. We’re solid. We’re committed. You don’t have to worry about us. Go recruit other players. Now we still did it because we thought it was the right thing to do.

Like I said, I tried to tell other recruits, who said, “We’re stressed out.” He’s not. He made his decision. He stuck to his process. He never wavered.


I think Birchmeier could play center, guard or tackle based on where our roster is right now. I’m going to sit down and have conversations with them to make sure they’re okay with this, but I’d love to be able to start Birchmeier and J’ven (Williams) at tackle to see if they can do it. Tackles are the hardest guys to find. 


They both have the length and athleticism to do it. Birchmeier is bigger than people realize. He’s 6’5.5″, bigger than what people realize. I’d love to start those two guys at tackle to see if they can do it. Knowing, we know J’ven can move inside, knowing that Birch can move inside to both guard and center. 

DT Ty Blanding • 6-1, 265 • Bronx, New York (Christ the King)

The guy that nobody’s talking about, and I watch his tape, I think he’s really good, is Ty Blanding. Watch the guy play linebacker; 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. 


He’s a guy, watch his tape; I’m like, I don’t understand why more people are not talking about this guy. I think his tape is really, really good. He’s an awesome kid. Love the family. Love everything about him. 


He’s a skinny 260 pounds right now. I think he’s going to end up being a big, powerful, athletic kid. We’re excited about him on our roster.”

OL Anthony Donkoh  • 6-5, 320 • Aldie, Virginia (Lightridge)

Franklin to Donkoh: The good thing is you’re far enough away from home to grow up and become your own man but still close enough that the family can be a part of it. To me, that’s the thing that stands out about you and your family is your humility. A lot of these guys, they go through the recruiting process and everybody’s patting them on the back and telling them how wonderful they are, and their egos explode. And you’ve just handled this unbelievably well. I talked to you about the things that you need to get better (at) and I suggested that you come to camp, and I say that you all the recruits. I say “You should come to every single camp to get better, but to also work with your position coach and build that rapport,” and I think you may be the first one that we’ve had in my nine years at Penn State. I think you came to every single camp. Every time I turned around, your mom was sitting there in the front row. Your brother, I think, as JaJuan (Seider) said, I think is the real reason you came to every camp because they thought there was going to be free Penn State ice cream at every single event. I think the one time, when your brothers left with about 15 of those cups, I think that may be an NCAA violation, the amount of Ice Cream that you left with. But you guys have been awesome, and you just have gotten better and better and better as a football player. I think the best football for you is ahead. I think you have a really bright future, but I would keep that humility the entire time you’re here. It’s going to allow you to be coachable. It’s going to allow you to maximize this experience in the classroom and on the football field, and we can’t wait to get you here.”

CB Elliot Washington II • 5-11, 190 • Venice, Florida (Venice)

Franklin to Washington via Zoom: You’ve earned this. So enjoy today. You’re going to be here in a very short period of time. So I would challenge you and the family to take advantage of every day you have left there. Elliot, don’t take it for granted. You have unbelievable people around you that love and support you. So enjoy this time that you have together because, pretty soon, you’re going to be on campus. So you’ll have a lot of hard work, but we’re going to do it together.

TE Joey Schlaffer • 6-5, 220 • Reading, Pennsylvania (Exeter Township)

I’m really proud of you. And I just think you have such a bright future. You’ve matured in so many ways, and then to watch you and the type of year you had, not only on the football field but also academically, and now you’re going to be here in a very, very short period of time.

CB Lamont Payne Jr. • 6-0, 185 • Carnegie, Pennsylvania (Chartiers Valley)

You’ve really handled this process the right way. I remember you coming to camp and doing a great job in camp and us offering you. You wanted to commit right away and we wanted to make sure that you and your family were all on the same page, the coaches were all on the same page. But you have a great support system. You’re going to be here in a very, very short period of time.”

OL J’Ven Williams • 6-5, 290 • Wyomissing, Pennsylvania (Wyomissing)

It’s unusual that you have a guy come to camp that leaves without a scholarship offer and ends up becoming one of the top 20 players in the country and one of the top offensive linemen, if not the top offensive lineman in the country, and you handled it the right way. You just kept getting better and better and better. Your high school did an unbelievable job. Your high school coaches did an unbelievable job. You handled it the right way. Your family handled it the right way. I had such a good time at breakfast the other morning with the entire crew. With the entire crew. You just have handled this entire process the right way. It is so important for us to keep the best players in the state of Pennsylvania home. That’s what you are. You represent that, both on and off the field, academically as well. It just makes too much sense. I told you very early on that this school and this university were built for you. For this opportunity. To educate you and to create this opportunity athletically, and I know you’re going to represent us the right way. We can’t wait to get you here.”

TE Andrew Rappleyea • 6-4, 235 • Millbrook, New York (Milton Academy, Mass.)

“I just wanted to tell you how excited we are you have you,” tight ends coach Ty Howle said. “All of you guys as part of the family. You guys embody what we are here at Penn State.

RB Cam Wallace • 5-9, 172 • Mt. Vernon, Georgia (Montgomery County)

The way you guys have handled this process, in a short period of time, we were able to get to know each other, ask a bunch of tough questions, talk about everything from A through Z, not only personally but also professionally, as well. We just got to a point where we became very comfortable with you and your family in a short period of time, and it was obvious that you’re the type of young man that we want in our locker room and representing our colors. So we couldn’t be more proud. 

CB Zion Tracy • 5-11, 175 • Hempsted, New York (St. Thomas More, Conn.)

“This is going to be an awesome journey for you. This is going to be an awesome journey for you.”

WR Carmelo Taylor • 5-11, 160 • Ronake, Virginia (Patrick Henry)

When your turn your film on right away, what jumps out is your speed and your playmaking ability. It’s interesting that KJ (Hamler) was the one that was able to introduce you because you do remind me a lot of KJ. He doesn’t want to hear this, but you’re probably faster at this age than KJ was, and your ability to impact the game as a punt returner and kick returner and as a wide receiver. Your speed is something that everybody is looking for. 

S King Mack • 5-foot-10, 175 • Miami, Florida (St. Thomas Aquinas)

“To me, King, you have it all, man.”

DE Jameial Lyons • 6-5, 250 • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Roman Catholic)

Jameial Lyons had been committed to us at defensive end for a while.

S DaKaari Nelson • 6-3, 200 • Livingston, Alabama (Selma)

Franklin said Nelson is a good example of Penn State “branching out and going to more places” to find recruits. 

“You get a chance to spend some time with DaKaari and his family. His dad’s the principal of the school. Mom is phenomenal. They’ve done a great job raising DaKaari.”

QB Jaxon Smolik • 6-1, 205 • Van Meter, Iowa (Dowling Catholic)

“I think Smolik, again, if you just kind of look at his story. Gets invited to the Elite 11 at the last minute. There’s no hesitation. There’s no hurt feelings that he’s getting called at the last minute. Jumps on a plane at the last minute, gets out there and competes and does really well, is hurt his junior year, so there’s not a lot of evidence and film out there on him, and then he comes to our camp and earns a scholarship. God forbid that’s how this happens anymore. Most guys don’t go through the process that way. But (Smolik) came to camp, earned the scholarship, did a lot of things really well. Great family, and we’re excited about him. We’re really excited about him. I thought he had a really good senior year, has a lot of the traits and intangibles that we look for. He’ll be here during the spring, so we’ll have a chance to evaluate him. Plus, I went and watched him play. It was a bitter, cold day in Iowa. It was raining, and watching him throw the ball in warmups on the sideline, it didn’t even phase him. Has massive hands. He just has a lot of traits that you look for at that position. So we’re looking forward to working with him and helping him develop.”

RB London Montgomery • 5-10, 180 • Scranton, Pennsylvania (Scranton Prep)

London didn’t get hurt junior year like Jaxon did, but London, I think, rushed for over 2,300 yards as a junior. I think he would have had a chance to rush for over 3,000 yards as a senior. Gets hurt before the year starts, commits to us… when you get hurt and don’t play your senior year, there’s obviously not a whole lot of people talking about you, and you can go back and watch his junior year tape; it’s really good. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him and the family. Just great people. The more people you talk to about his personality, the more you get to know him, the type of impact he has on others is really strong. So we’re excited about him. 

LB Ta’Mere Robinson • 6-3, 230 • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Brashear)

“If I had to put it on the board right now, Ta’Mere probably at MIKE with his size. He’s a big, big, big young man, but has the athleticism and movement and leadership qualities.”

“Ta’Mere was one of the most highly-recruited guys in the country. Then he gets hurt. You guys may have heard me say this on the broadcast. I’m not sure what got on the broadcast and what didn’t, but I remember being at a game with Terry Smith on the sideline. One of Brashear’s games, and Ohio State was there. Michigan was there. Clemson was there, Notre Dame was there. It was like “who’s who” of college football on the sideline. Like, ‘we’re going to be in for a fight with this was. Fortunately, we were able to convince him to stay home and play at LBU. He’s another guy that I think, if would have played his senior year, would have had a dominant year.”

LB Tony Rojas • 6-2, 195 • Fairfax, Virginia (Fairfax)

“Rojas is exactly how we would like them built in terms his length and athleticism. He’s a guy that you watch his tape; you could make the argument he could play running back here. That’s the type of athleticism that he has.”

LB Kaveion Keys • 6-2, 195 • Richmond, Virginia (Varina)

“Kaveion Keys is a guy that we were able to kind of flip late. I could see him playing in the boundary, but you could make the argument with him playing to the field, too.”

Franklin also explained how Penn State got Keys, who had been committed to North Carolina from August through earlier this month. He de-committed from UNC and announced his commitment to PSU this past Friday.

“I think the biggest thing, and this probably sounds a little confusing, but he’s a really good kid. And he had given his word and made a commitment and then came on a visit to us, and, I think, from that point on, wanted to change, but didn’t know how to make a change and was really struggling with that whole process. To be honest with you, we didn’t think we were going to get him probably a month ago. But things worked out, and we were able to get him on board and join our class. But he was a guy that we really liked his tape, and then, obviously, with him going to the same high school as Michael Robinson, there was a connection there. 

“And then, when he came on his visit, we just kind of fell in love with him. He has an infectious personality. He has a great support system from his family. His mom has been awesome, and we kind of fell in love with him from that point on and were just trying to kind of make sense of it for both us and for him. I just didn’t know if it would play itself out the way it did. 

We had two really good linebackers committed. We would have liked to have signed three in this class, and we were able to get it done. We went to do a home visit last week with us, and he was like, literally, as soon as we walked in the house and sat down on the couch, he said, ‘well, I’m coming. I’m committing to Penn State.” We wanted to get excited, and as we were trying to get excited, he goes, “but I don’t think I’m going to commit in the early signing period.

“I’m like “oh my gosh, here we go again.” That was part of kind of the roller coaster. Kind of just sat there and kind of went through our process and how we go about things and how we felt like it was in his and our best interests for him to sign in the early signing period. I said, “if you think it’s crazy now if you hold this thing on to the next signing period, it’s going to get even crazier. And for most of these recruits and their parents, although the recruiting process is fun and exciting, by the end of it, they’re as done with it as we are. 

“That’s probably why we went to an early signing period. They just want it to be over. It’s nice to have people at your house and have dinner once or twice, but when people are trying to come in every week and make a sale, it can be pressure.”


DE Joseph Mupoyi • 6-5, 240 • Upper Marlboro, Maryland (St. Thomas More, Conn.)

When you talk about those guys and what we were able to do, especially late, Jameial Lyons had been committed to us at defensive end for a while. You’re going to love getting to know Joseph. Just so you know, he goes by “Vicky.”I guess part of reason is one of his parents wanted to name him Vicky, the other parent wanted to call him Joseph. Even though they named him Joseph, the other parent kept calling him Vicky is the story that I’ve gotten on it. 


He’s a really neat, unique kid. Came to this country to play basketball. Ended up changing to football. Has kind of blown up. He really reminds me in some ways of Jayson Oweh. I’m not saying that to be pressure on him because Jayson ended up being a first-round draft pick. Similar body type, basketball background. He was a really good pickup. 


One of the things I thought was important with him is one of my challenges, that I see right now in college football is some of the guys you sign in a class, they’re developmental guys and there’s nothing wrong with being a developmental guy. 


We’ve got guys playing in the NFL. You look at Nick Scott; I don’t think he started until his senior year at Penn State. After his great story of, he had “26 reasons” to move from running back to defensive back. Now not only is he starting for the Rams at safety but won a Super Bowl. 


I worry a little bit in college football that you’ll have less stories like that because guys won’t wait to be developed. So I had a very kind of transparent conversation, with his lack of experience in football, to make sure that his mom and dad understood that and the kid understood that. That made me feel good about it. 


A lot of times, by the time it’s going to take to develop some of these players, they’re going to go in the transfer portal. I think having those conversations now more than ever are really important. 


Don’t get me wrong; he may be ready in year one. If he is, awesome. Again, making sure that if he’s not, that they understand that there’s still time to achieve your dreams. 

DE Mason Robinson • 6-3, 225 • Randallstown, Maryland (McDonogh School)

Mason, we were heartbroken this summer; we were shocked. Out of nowhere, he committed to another school. We’ve got so much history with his high school, so many different personalities and body types and athleticism from that high school that have come here and been really successful. 


I can’t imagine in Penn State’s history if there’s been that many players from one high school on a roster in a similar amount of time that all are playing and playing well. We just felt like we had a really good story to tell, a track record of success. We were shocked when he didn’t commit to us the first time. 


Literally, he called us late in the year, was thinking about opening it back up and getting started. We thought he was just going to kind of commit to us. He talked about, like, opening the whole recruiting process up again. We’re like, “You’ve got to be kidding me; we’re going to open this whole thing up?” 


Though that may have been their thought, once he was able to visit, felt comfortable here, at home here. I think Dani had a big part in it as well as other guys from McDonogh. I think, in the end, it made sense for the family. 


That was big for us because I felt like we needed to sign some high school defensive ends in this class. That was big for us. 

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