Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to say he’s searching for “Wild Dogs” to work with up front. The Nittany Lions have put together an impressive pack in the 2018 recruiting class, and expectations point toward an even stronger finished product by National Signing Day.
The Nittany Lions landed a commitment from 4-star defensive tackle Aeneas Hawkins on Thursday morning. The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Cincinnati standout had nearly 40 scholarship offers, ultimately picking Penn State over a hometown Bearcats squad where his father once starred.
Hawkins, considered a top-25 prospect at the position, provides Spencer with his second pickup this week. Penn State also got a pledge from fellow 4-star defensive tackle PJ Mustipher on Monday.
The Nittany Lions now claim four commitments along the defensive line, including three blue-chip recruits, and two NFL legacies.
Hawkins’ father, Artrell, played defensive back for the Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots during a nine-year professional career. Judge Culpepper, a high 3-star recruit who committed to Penn State on July 14, is the son of former NFL defensive lineman Brad Culpepper, who spent time with the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Both players are expected to join Mustipher ― considered the nation’s No. 6 defensive tackle recruit in 247Sports’ 2018 composite rankings ― as interior forces. Dorian Hardy, a 4-star pledge and top-10 strongside defensive end from New Jersey, rounds out this group as currently constructed.
I use that phrasing ― as currently constructed ― because Spencer and Nittany Lions coach James Franklin likely still have some tricks up their sleeve this recruiting cycle. The hunt for more Wild Dogs is well underway, and now it’s just a matter of finding out which targets come aboard by February.
“It’s definitely crazy,” Mustipher told Land of 10. “Judge, Dorian, Aeneas — I have great relationships with all those guys. I talk to them on a daily basis. They’re great players and guys I want to be around.”
But, like the Penn State staff, Mustipher isn’t satisfied yet.
“Coach Chaos [Spencer] always talks about building the best defensive line in the country and the best defensive line class ever assembled,” he said. “I think that’s exactly what he’s going to do.”
“Those are high-caliber players and high-character guys, so I’m definitely going to be in their ear,” he said.
All three are considered top-200 overall talents in composite rankings, and each visited Happy Valley at some point this summer.
Mustipher and Oweh spent time together at Penn State during a Junior Day in May, then reunited for a July 14 camp where they worked under the direction of Spencer.
“It was great,” Oweh said afterward. “Love his coaching style.”
The 6-foot-5, 236-pound Blair Academy (Blairstown, N.J.) senior has played just one season of high school football, but he had a productive junior campaign and possesses freakish athleticism (4.46-second 40-yard dash). Oweh will choose between Notre Dame, Ohio State and Penn State in January at the Under Armour All-America Game in Orlando, Fla.
Mustipher plans to provide plenty of input along the way.
“I hit Jayson up daily,” he said.
Mustipher has known Micah Parsons since freshman year, when they attended a NFL Prep Academy camp together. He met Tyreke Smith at The Opening in June, and they caught up again while attending July 15 Lasch Bash festivities in State College.
The coveted Cleveland recruit ― his offer sheet has swelled to include 40 schools ― was greeted by considerable fanfare during that experience.
— Tyreke Smith™ (@T_23_baller) July 15, 2017
Smith is listed No. 4 nationally among weakside defensive end recruits in composite rankings. Parsons tops that group, and lands at No. 5 overall in the 2018 class.
The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Harrisburg (Pa.) High School star is one of the most impressive defensive prospects to emerge in Pennsylvania. He totaled more than 40 sacks and 60 tackles for loss during his first three prep seasons, earning preseason 2017 All-USA honors.
“I have the ability to speed rush, dominate my opponent and hold down my side of the field,” Parsons said before an April camp performance that earned him a positional MVP award.
Parsons previously spent 14 months as a marquee member of Penn State’s class. That ended April 23, when he opted for a “fresh start.” While he’s returned to Happy Valley on multiple occasions since that decision, his recent travel itinerary also included Alabama, Nebraska and Ohio State.
Penn State and the other suitors likely must wait until deep into winter for an answer regarding his collegiate intentions. Parsons could stretch this process to the finish line, using all five official visits before a Feb. 7 announcement.
Nittany Lions receiver commit Shaquon Anderson-Butts is his high school teammate and close friend. He expressed confidence that Parsons will return to the class during a conversation last week with Aaron Carr of PennLive.
“He’s going to come. I got it all mapped out,” Anderson-Butts told Carr. “I’m working him a lot. Every day.”
Anderson-Butts and Mustipher certainly aren’t alone in their quest to make Parsons a member of this pack.
“There’s never such a thing as being too good at a position, so if we were to team up, that would be great,” Hardy said. “I can learn off of him, he can learn off of me. … He’s someone you want in your corner; just a great player.”
Continued improvement in the trenches has been a point of emphasis for Franklin while building off his first Big Ten championship.
“I think one of the things we’ve probably done each year is we keep upgrading,” he said Aug. 5 at Penn State’s Media Day. “You go out to practice the first couple days [of preseason camp] and I’m kind of talking to [performance enhancement coach Dwight] Galt, and I’m covering my mouth and saying, ‘We look different.’ Physically, we just look different.”
Enhanced recruiting success is pivotal for progress. Franklin raved about the stature of three newcomers, while still awaiting the arrival of 4-star defensive end signee Damion Barber, who played alongside Parsons at Harrisburg.
“You look at [defensive tackle] Corey Bolds and you look at [defensive tackle] Fred Hansard and you look at [defensive end] Yetur Gross-Matos, none of those guys look like true freshmen,” he said. “They are big, strong, physically developed guys who can run. That’s going to make our defense better.”
Spencer is routinely attached to the word “chaos” because of his implementation of various looks up front. It’s an effort that requires an array of talent, and it routinely produces tremendous disruption.
“I love Spence’s rotation and what he’s done with those guys,” Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “I think it’s important to our depth. Late in the game, third, fourth quarter, that same O-line has been out there snap after snap, and we’re bringing in guys that are fairly fresh. So it’s been a real asset.”
Penn State is arguably recruiting at the highest level in program history. Franklin’s 15 blue-chip commitments already represent an all-time team high, and those roster reinforcements will benefit every position on the field.
In Spencer’s case, it means expectations have never been greater for his Wild Dogs.
“It’s an amazing feeling because when you win up in the trenches, that’s when you win national championships and Big Ten titles,” Mustipher said. “That’s what Penn State is trying to accomplish, and I think they’re doing very well.”