UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State signing day came early this year, with new NCAA rules allowing prospective student-athletes to make things official earlier than the typical February date.
Come Wednesday, excitement and anticipation filled the Lasch Football Building as months and months of hard work resulted in one of the most intriguing signing classes, tabbed the highest rated since rankings began nearly 20 years ago.
"I want to thank our staff for all the hard work they've put in in developing these relationships," Penn State head coach James Franklin said. "That's coaches as well as our recruiting staff, as well as our administrative staff. I want to thank our players. I also want to thank the families and high school prospects out there that believed in us, and want to come and help us continue to build."
The Lasch Building opened bright and early, with Franklin arriving well before sunrise. Staff members, coaches, families and supporters soon streamed in, as festivities began in the "war room" right around 7 a.m. As the sun peeked through, Penn State first signee of the morning became officially official as linebacker Nick Tarburton kicked off the day with a 7:33 a.m. signing.
"It was a race for his mom to be number one in the boat today, just like Nick, ultra-competitive," defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. "It was important to get him here first."
Penn State saw its first of three five-star recruits sign on the dotted line, as wide receiver Justin Shorter made his signing day announcement official surrounded by his family at 7:37 a.m.
In the first six announcements alone, Penn State saw commitments in the top-ranked individuals from four different states, including Shorter (New Jersey), tight end Pat Freiermuth (Massachusetts) and running back Ricky Slade (Virginia).
The Nittany Lions only added to the list later in the day, with perhaps the grand finale coming in the official signing of five-star athlete Micah Parsons, making him the third consecutive prospect ranked No. 1 in the state of Pennsylvania to become a Nittany Lion.
A simple glance at the class through part one of the early signing day period includes 21 signees, 10 on offense, nine on defense one kicker and one athlete. Among six new Nittany Lions hailing from the state of Pennsylvania, what is perhaps more profound is that the members of the class span 12 different states and into a different country, reaching as far as Florida and Texas.
For assistant head coach, defensive recruiting coordinator and cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, the diving into states like Texas and Florida was anything but an easy task, noting that as Penn State's win total continues to increase, the yes on Penn State also continue to multiply, making the Nittany Lions a game changer, with a total of four 2018 early signees coming from either state.
"It was tough, obviously, we hadn't dove into, especially, Texas and then Florida," Smith said. "They are heavily recruited areas and we made some inroads there. We feel like this is just the beginning to tapping into both those states. We are happy with the three guys we got. Obviously, to go down into Houston, which is a hotbed, and also Tampa and Dallas, we just hope to get one or two more each year if we can."
Franklin announced that six Nittany Lions will join Penn State next semester, naming Parsons among the group.
"Excited about the fact, obviously, about the class overall, but I'm also excited we've got six guys that should be here in a couple of weeks," Franklin said. "They'll be here mid-semester, Trent Gordon, Isaiah Humphries, Zack Kuntz, Jesse Luketa, Micah Parsons, and Nick Tarburton will all be here in a couple of weeks. I think as you guys have seen, we've played freshmen, and whether that's guys that graduated early and came in December or come in the summer, they're going to have an opportunity to compete."
That group includes one tight end, one athlete, one safety, one corner back and two linebackers.
Also from the group, Franklin noted that Penn State fans can expect to see Parsons at middle linebacker this spring, with the option for things to change depending on how he progresses.
"We're going to play Micah Parsons at mike linebacker this spring and see how that goes," Franklin said. "We know he can move back to defensive end. But we're going to have him here for spring ball and see if he can do that. Right now, we don't have a defensive end committed in the class."
Speaking of Parsons
From committed to decommitted to committed again, even Franklin noted that the story of Parsons' recruiting process will likely end up somewhere in his memoirs from when he's retired. Building the relationship early though, Pry recalled one of the first times he caught Parsons live.
"Coach Spencer and I watched him play live for the first time when he was in 10th grade and when we walked away, our jaws dropped at the performance," Pry said.
Since the day he arrived on campus though, a focus on securing talent in the state of Pennsylvania has consistently been at the forefront of Franklin's approach. When looking at Parsons, Franklin pointed to true sophomore running back Miles Sanders, a once top-ranked incoming Nittany Lion from Pennsylvania, as a sort of turning point for those who would come after him.
"I think Miles [Sanders] got this thing started," Franklin said. "Very appreciative of Miles and his mom for kind of getting it going. Miles made it cool to stay home and play at Penn State."
Penn State also saw Nazareth, Pennsylvania wide receiver Jahan Dotson opt to return home to Happy Valley in his commitment.
"Recruiting, in-state kid we were trying to connect with," Franklin said. "Kind of ups and downs, twists and turns in this recruiting process, but at the end of the day things worked out the way they were supposed to work out. We were able to keep an in-state, local player home, which I think is a win-win for everybody. Him having an opportunity to get a world-class education and play big-time football and do it in front of everybody he loves."
Dotson joins a trio of wide receivers in this year's signing class poised with potential, something that has wide receivers coach Josh Gattis extremely pleased.
"When you look at our receiving core, we signed three very talented receivers [Jahan Dotson, Daniel George, Justin Shorter]" Gattis said. "All three are a little bit different; they bring a different skill set to the room which we are really excited about."
Gattis also referenced what he and the staff are deeming the best tight end duo in the country, with Freiermuth joining Camp Hill native Zack Kuntz.
"[Zack] Kuntz, I think is very similar to a lot of ways to [Mike] Gesicki," Franklin said. "High school wide receiver, probably a little further along as a tight end than what Mike was. But both big bodied guys that can really run. Kuntz at 6-7, 215 pounds or so came to camp and ran in the 4.6s for us, which is really impressive. Obviously, with [Pat] Freiermuth, you've kind of got the complete opposite. You're talking 6-5-, 215-pound road grader, tough guy with really soft hands."
While its just a small snapshot of all the early signees have to offer for the Nittany Lions, Franklin also noted that the work isn't over, with a second opportunity coming up in February proving just important as today's announcements.
"I think we'll have some more action in the next day or so, and then I think we could have some more action, guys that we're still involved with for the second signing day that we knew they were going to wait until the second signing day," Franklin said. "So there are still some moving parts out there."