Penn State recruiting: Nittany Lions’ success in New Jersey challenges Rutgers’ rebuild

mike gesicki-penn state-saturday-injury

Penn State aims to establish a national brand on the college football recruiting trail. A 22-player 2018 recruiting class represents 12  states, including four total recruits from Florida and Texas.

Still, few places beyond Pennsylvania borders have been more beneficial for the Nittany Lions’ recruiting efforts than neighboring New Jersey.

The current roster features 16 New Jersey products, including several stalwarts who’ve contributed to recent success. This group features record-setting tight end Mike Gesicki, two of the team’s top 3 tacklers (Manny Bowen and Jason Cabinda), a trio of receivers (Saeed Blacknall, Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson) and 60 percent of the starting offensive line (Will Fries, Steven Gonzalez and Brendan Mahan).

Earlier this year, Penn State signed three linemen — Corey Bolds, Fred Hansard and Robert Martin — who were considered top-20 recruits in 2017 New Jersey 247Sports composite rankings. The Nittany Lions carry a verbal commitment from the No. 1 prospect in the 2018 New Jersey rankings: 5-star receiver Justin Shorter.

In short, the Garden State has been fertile territory for Penn State coach James Franklin and his staff.

“We’ve got a lot of respect for the state of New Jersey, from a high school play perspective, the level of football that’s played, the way they’re coached and how well they’re developed,” Franklin said Tuesday. “You look at Penn State historically, we have a number of great players that come here [from New Jersey] that have great careers and great experiences. So it’s something that’s going to continue to be very important for our program.”

Past prospect pursuits there, and those still to come, routinely involve players targeted by Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. Rutgers joined the Big Ten in 2014, the same year Franklin arrived in Happy Valley.

The Scarlet Knights enjoyed some initial success in the conference, beating Michigan and nearly topping Penn State at home during an 8-win campaign in 2014. However, the following two seasons resulted in a 1-15 record against Big Ten opponents and featured a coaching change.

Rutgers coach Chris Ash, now in his second year at the school, leads his program into Beaver Stadium this Saturday with 3 victories in the past 4 conference games. Penn State pummeled the Scarlet Knights, 39-0, in 2016 during Ash’s first season at the helm, but his squad is currently riding the momentum and has already matched its high mark for Big Ten wins with three.

When these teams meet for a noon kickoff, there will be familiar faces across the field. Former New Jersey high school teammates and rivals will be front and center for much of the action.

Though Rutgers undoubtedly has an advantage in volume, Penn State has repeatedly edged out the Scarlet Knights for top-tier New Jersey talent under the direction of Franklin, who hired former Rutgers recruiting coordinator E.J. Barthel this spring.

According to composite rankings, Penn State signed eight top-10 prospects from the state between 2014 and 2017. During this same stretch, Rutgers landed two. Both of those signings occurred last winter, representing a crucial step forward for Ash.

Now three months away from National Signing Day, the top-rated in-state member of Rutgers’ 2018 recruiting class is considered the state’s No. 19 overall talent in composite rankings. The aforementioned Shorter — an All-American receiver who pledged to Penn State in August 2016 — tops that list and attends South Brunswick High School, less than 20 miles from High Point Solutions Stadium.

Todderick Hunt, a veteran football recruiting analyst for, explained these kinds of developments can be a hard pill to swallow for Scarlet Knights fans.

“There are a number of programs — probably at least 10 of them — that regularly look to poach New Jersey’s top talent, but I’d definitely say there’s more of a sting when it comes to Penn State,” Hunt said.

It’s hard to avoid New Jersey players while watching Penn State highlights, and they’ve played pivotal roles while welcoming Rutgers to the conference with three consecutive defeats. The past two contests resulted in a combined 67-3 Nittany Lions advantage.

Heck, even Heisman Trophy hopeful Saquon Barkley (Coplay, Pa.) spent six months committed to the Scarlet Knights. The Penn State star called Rutgers his “dream school” after pledging to former coach Kyle Flood prior to his junior season in high school.

Naturally, there is a sentiment of “What if?” among many Rutgers fans about the recent exodus of in-state talent. Penn State certainly isn’t alone in this onslaught. Michigan signed five top-10 New Jersey recruits in 2016, headlined by No. 1 overall national prospect Rashan Gary.

“[Big Ten inclusion] opens Rutgers and New Jersey up to more poaching from within the conference,” Hunt said. “It certainly goes both ways, but it benefits them more so than playing in a smaller league and trying to sell that to recruits. … It’s a great selling point — you’re talking about the most historic college football league throughout the country. You watch Big Ten football on any given weekend and it’s probably the closest reflection to NFL football. It’s certainly given Rutgers a box to stand on when talking to recruits.”

Coach Chris Ash aims to make Rutgers a destination for New Jersey’s top high school football talent. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Rutgers’ journey toward becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2014 won’t be easy, as the 4-5 Scarlet Knights close out with top-25 matchups against Penn State and Michigan State. Still, this season already has revealed signs of strides following a 2016 campaign doomed by zero wins in conference play.

These indications of positive progression could provide some much-needed ammo for Ash & Co. on the recruiting trail, pushing back against programs such as Penn State that seek to plunder New Jersey’s premier prospects.

“Obviously the play on the field is as important as anything in recruiting,” Hunt said. “Now they’re earning back some respect after being able to win a few Big Ten games. It will be important for them moving forward to continue to compete, and against a formidable team like Penn State.”

Perception is vitally important on the recruiting trail, as on-field success often equates to stabilized leadership and overall program advancement. Rutgers flourished under Greg Schiano, spending significant time in the top 25 — cracking the top 10 in 2006 — while securing coveted local recruits and appearing in five straight bowl games out of the Big East.

Most current high school prospects in New Jersey probably don’t have vivid memories of that impressive era, requiring a perception reboot from Rutgers. “Fence the Garden” has become a mantra for the Scarlet Knights recruiting strategy, though time will tell if Ash is able to overcome invaders and keep the state’s elite on local turf.

Meanwhile, programs such as Penn State will loom large. Juwan Johnson, whose older brother played at Rutgers under Schiano, said he sees a solid foundation built between the Nittany Lions and his home state.

“I guess it’s an influence for New Jersey guys for just us being here,” he said in August. “We don’t have to say much. You just turn on the TV, see Penn State playing and all the Jersey guys on the field. You see Mike, me, Jason, Irv, Saeed, a lot of us. Now Fred and Corey. We’re all here, and we’re just making Jersey proud.”

Mike Gesicki (left) and Juwan Johnson are two of Penn State’s most productive pass targets. Both starred in New Jersey as high school players. (Tyler Donohue/Land of 10)

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