Penn State recruiting: Projected Nittany Lions class could dominate defensive front

Each month until National Signing Day, I’ll project the 2018 Penn State recruiting class on both sides of the ball. We focused on a talented collection of offensive prospects Tuesday, and now we shift to the future Nittany Lions on defense.

James Franklin, defensive coordinator Brent Pry and positional assistants have assembled a collection of talent from various regions. The group includes nine athletes representing five states, and it even reaches an international level with Canadian linebacker Jesse Luketa in the mix.

Commitments from defensive tackles Aeneas Hawkins and PJ Mustipher in early August pushed Penn State’s class total to 23 players. That number has since dropped to 20 prospects, especially impacting the defensive outlook.

The Nittany Lions parted ways with New Jersey defensive end Dorian Hardy in October, then did the same with Philadelphia defensive back Isheem Young earlier this month. Both developments were the result of off-field issues.

Despite these deductions, Penn State remains in prime position to sign a top-10 class in 247Sports composite rankings. The Nittany Lions currently sit at No. 5 on that list, and the program is in excellent shape to secure more top-tier talent this winter.

Only one week shy of the inaugural early signing period (Dec. 20-22), here’s how I project Penn State’s class to develop on defense when things are finalized on the traditional national signing day (Feb. 7).

Defensive tackle (3): 3-star Judge Culpepper (Tampa, Fla.), 3-star Aeneas Hawkins (Cincinnati), 4-star PJ Mustipher (Owings Mills, Md.)

No position benefited more from Penn State’s mid-summer commitment spree. These three prospects were among the 10 who pledged during a six-week span that began July 6.

Judge Culpepper and Aeneas Hawkins are both the sons of former NFL players. Culpepper’s father, Brad, starred on the Florida Gators defensive line before signing with the Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears. Hawkins’ father, Artrell, played for the Cincinnati Bearcats before embarking on a professional career that included time with the Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots.

Culpepper, a mainstay on the defensive front for Tampa area powerhouse Plant High School, spent plenty of reps wreaking havoc in the backfield. He collected 39 tackles for loss and 16 sacks during the past two seasons, according to MaxPreps.

While this pair presents options along the defensive line while competing in the 260-pound range, PJ Mustipher is a prototypical interior defender. The 6-foot-5, 290-pound prospect is a penetrative force who attacks opponents with exceptional agility for his size, enhanced by his success as a state champion wrestler.

PJ Mustipher-Penn
PJ Mustipher committed to Penn State on Aug. 7. (Student Sports/Courtesy)

Defensive end (2): 5-star Micah Parsons (Harrisburg, Pa.), 4-star Tyreke Smith (Cleveland)

This is the most compelling position to monitor moving forward. Penn State remains in the mix for a trio of widely coveted defensive end talents: Jayson Oweh, Micah Parsons and Tyreke Smith.

The Nittany Lions have welcomed all three players to campus multiple times since this season began. Oweh used an official visit Nov. 17-19, watching Penn State defeat Nebraska. Parsons and Smith were both in town last weekend, pursued alongside top-10 offensive tackle talent Rasheed Walker by 14 peers who’ve already pledged to the program.

“The guys who are uncommitted left State College with a new No. 1 and I’m sure of it,” Nittany Lions linebacker commit Jesse Luketa told Land of 10.

Parsons, who previously spent 14 months as a member of this recruiting class, is still considering schools such as Georgia and Oklahoma, but indications point toward a reunion with Penn State. He is the top overall prospect in Pennsylvania, and carries potential as an elite edge rusher.

“Micah isn’t a stranger to State College so I’m looking forward to his commitment on signing day because our family is about to get better,” Luketa said.

Parsons plans to reveal his decision Dec. 20, when Penn State is likely to sign the vast majority of its 2018 class. The process extends a bit longer for Oweh and Smith, who both intend to announce Jan. 4 during the Under Armour All-America Game.

Smith has a top-five list featuring Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, Penn State and USC. Despite substantial competition from perennial conference title contenders, I’ve become increasingly comfortable with my projection of him ending up in Happy Valley.

Oweh, meanwhile, continues to see his recruitment evolve. He cancelled a planned official visit to Notre Dame last weekend and recently added offers from Alabama and Nebraska. Penn State has hosted him more times (five) than any other program, but Big Ten rivals Ohio State and Michigan are firmly in contention.

Things remain a bit too muddled for me to confidently predict Oweh will give Penn State a “Big Three” at defensive end on signing day, but it’s certainly a very realistic possibility.

Linebacker (3): 4-star Jesse Luketa (Ottawa, Ontario), 3-star Charlie Katshir (Mechanicsburg, Pa.), 4-star Nick Tarburton (Perkasie, Pa.)

The linebacker situation has long been solidified for Penn State. All three prospects pledged to the program in February and remain firmly committed to signing this winter.

These talents each starred at Pennsylvania high schools, but it’s worth mentioning Jesse Luketa arrived at Mercyhurst Prep (Erie, Pa.) by way of a transfer from his hometown in Canada. The 6-3, 235-pound playmaker continues to develop increased speed and pass-coverage skills that will aid him in the hunt for early opportunities at inside linebacker.

Charlie Katshir was a highly productive two-way player at Cumberland Valley High School, and spent much of his career roaming on defense in a safety role. This 6-3, 210-pound prospect will require some physical development in his transition to a full-time outside linebacker, though there is a chance we’ll witness him flourish in a hybrid setting at Penn State.

Nick Tarburton is an aggressive, downhill defender who finishes off plays with authority. He is an exceptional run-stopper and handles himself well in the trenches, suggesting this 6-4, 245-pound talent carries serious potential at defensive end.

Cornerback (2): 3-star Trent Gordon (Manvel, Texas), 3-star Jordan Miner (Tampa, Fla.)

This cornerback tandem provides further evidence of Penn State’s growing national reach on the recruiting trail. Trent Gordon and Jordan Miner commanded widespread attention from collegiate coaching staffs during productive careers in two of the country’s most contentious high school football landscapes.

Gordon, a 5-11, 180-pound defender, displays fluid hips and coverage skills that suggest he can consistently handle 1-on-1 coverage against shifty receivers. His open-field tackling abilities also stand out, as he secured 114 tackles during the past two seasons, per MaxPreps.

The recruitment of Miner was particularly interesting since he had plenty of opportunities in the ACC and SEC, along with close ties to the Oregon staff, yet pledged to Penn State following only one campus visit. Standing 6-1 and approaching 185 pounds, he presents options at either cornerback or safety, and it wouldn’t surprise to see him state his case for consideration as a kick returner.

Safety (1): 3-star Isaiah Humphries (Sachse, Texas)

The recent parting of ways with Isheem Young leaves Isaiah Humphries as the lone definitive safety prospect in this class. It remains to be seen whether Penn State plans to pursue other players or consider another current commit at safety, but the recent confirmation that former in-state target Kwantel Raines will sign early with West Virginia suggests filling another slot here may not be a top priority.

Humphries, a Nittany Lions legacy, is a balanced contributor at the position. The son of former Penn State defensive back Leonard Humphries, he recorded 14 interceptions during his prep career and also patrolled the secondary as an intimidating presence.

Humphries is among those who plan to enroll early at the university in January.

Kicker (1): 3-star Jake Pinegar (Ankeny, Iowa)

We’re including kicker Jake Pinegar in this section of our Penn State class projection. Although scholarship special teams players are often overlooked by fans, this pickup could quickly prove pivotal for the Nittany Lions.

Current starting kicker Tyler Davis is a senior, while anticipated successor Alex Barbir opted to depart Penn State after the regular season. This leaves a pair of walk-ons on the roster behind Davis, and opens the door for Pinegar to compete for starting duties.

Pinegar has a powerful leg, connecting on multiple field-goal attempts from beyond 50 yards in 2017. He envisions himself as a key component of the Nittany Lions roster next year, and can prove his value during camp next summer.

“Never got a chance to talk to [Barbir] that much but I wish him the best of luck wherever he ventures to next,” Pinegar said. “I planned on coming in and making an impact as much as possible anyhow. It obviously opens up space for the special teams but I was working toward being the guy from Day 1 and that focus hasn’t changed,” he told Land of 10.

The post Penn State recruiting: Projected Nittany Lions class could dominate defensive front appeared first on Land of 10.

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