Penn State Football: As Signing Date Looms, a Closer Look at Early Enrollment
National Letter of Intent signing day is on Wednesday.
And as fast as two-and-a-half weeks later, as many as 10 Penn State football recruits will begin college classes at University Park — as official Penn State students.
Penn State’s 2019 recruiting class stands, at minimum, at 16. More than half are expected to be early enrollees, starting classes in early January in what would be the biggest such class of the James Franklin Era.
This will be Franklin’s sixth recruiting class at Penn State, and in the five previous years combined, he has had 24 players start their Penn State academic and athletic careers in January. In most cases, those players eschewed a final half-year of high school to get a jumpstart on their degrees and the football playbook.
By the year, the numbers have been fairly steady, with a bit of a bump last year:
5 in 2014; 5 in 2015; 4 in 2016; 4 in 2017; and 6 in 2018.
That 2018 number doesn’t even include a new trend, as four additional freshmen — including tight end Pat Freiermuth, who had a stellar season as a true frosh — also enrolled in May 2018. That’s ahead of the mid-June starting date that had been the custom.
The 2014 group was unique in that all had been recruited by and committed to Bill O’Brien, and in most cases arrived on campus before Franklin was hired on Jan. 11, 2014. In 2015, three of the five were coming from other schools — Paris Palmer was a junior college transfer, while Tyler Davis had played soccer collegiately at Bradley University and Colin Castagna was a student at Loyola (Ill.) in the fall of 2013, but didn’t play football there. He had been a Chicago Tribune all-state player in high school.
Otherwise, the other early enrollees have come straight from high school to college, missing proms and full winter and scholastic sports seasons in the process.
In theory, such a move can give early enrollees a head start in taking classes, getting to work on Penn State’s strength and conditioning program, and learning the Nittany Lions’ playbooks and schemes. Scholarship slots open for them as a result of seniors’ December graduation and player departures.
Franklin certainly can see the advantages. On signing day in December 2017, the Penn State head coach said, “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. I do think the chances and the likelihood increase, obviously, the longer that they’re here and in this system.”
2019: WHO’S NEXT
Franklin has a good handle on which players who sign on Wednesday will be on campus no later than 17 days later, on Friday, Jan. 5. Spring semester classes start on Monday, Jan. 7, so incoming players are already likely registered for classes and have on-campus living arrangements set. During a scheduled press conference this Wednesday, the coach could announce which members of the new freshman class are destined to start in a few weeks.
“Another thing that’s been good for us is a large percentage of our guys have already applied to school, already been accepted to school, and already paid their acceptance fee,” Franklin said on Friday.
The players who are expected to officially sign a letter of intent on Wednesday and begin classes in January could include: quarterbacks Michael Johnson Jr. and Ta’Quan Roberson; linebackers Brandon Smith and Lance Dixon; cornerbacks Keaton Ellis and Marquis Wilson; tight end Brenton Strange; offensive lineman Anthony Whigan; and safety Tyler Randolph.
It’s a trend that is here to stay, Franklin said on the Coaches Caravan trail in May. His best guess then was 10 early enrollees for PSU. That was eight months ago.
“I think our mid-semester numbers are going to grow and I think that’s a trend that’s going to continue to get bigger and bigger,” Franklin said. “I see a lot of programs across the country are around the 10 number. I could see us getting to 10 guys coming in at mid-semester.
“Then I could see the number of guys that come in Summer I (semester, which begins in May) will grow as well, because guys want to give themselves the best opportunity to get on campus and compete as soon as they possibly can. And they want to get adjusted academically and get ahead. So, there is tremendous value in it.”
THE POSTER BOYS
True junior offensive lineman Connor McGovern and freshman linebacker Micah Parsons may be Penn State’s poster boys for enrolling early.
As a true freshman in the fall of 2016 who arrived in January of that year, McGovern contributed immediately. He started nine games and appeared in 13 contests that year. Heading into the Citrus Bowl, he has made 34 career starts, tied with redshirt junior lineman Ryan Bates and trailing only quarterback Trace McSorley (39).
An agribusiness major who had a 3.97 GPA in high school, McGovern comes from a family that values education — his father, Jim, is a school superintendent.
“Enrolling early was very much a help — the transition to school, getting used to all of that a semester early,” said McGovern on Friday. “Learning the offense helped me get ahead of most people coming in. It was great fit for me. It was more of a challenge on the school front for me — not being told what to do, you do most things on your own when you first come to college. That was the biggest adjustment for me. That fall, I didn’t have to worry so much about the school aspect of things. I was already comfortable.”
But it may come down to dollars vs. a diploma, at least for now. McGovern was ranked as the No. 1 draft eligible college guard by ESPN’s Mel Kiper in the fall, so that early arrival may also hasten an early departure for McGovern, who has another year of college eligibility in 2019. He’ll declare his intentions after the bowl.
Parsons, who arrived in January 2018, only earned one start for the Nittany Lions in 2018, but played a great deal and led the team in tackles, with 69 overall. It’s not hard to see him only playing two more seasons for Penn State, then exiting early a la McGovern.
Parsons, although highly-heralded as a high school player, arrived at Penn State still rough around the edges, on and off the field. Defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Brent Pry said on Friday that Parsons has made great strides, but still has plenty of work to do.
“He has some growing and maturing to do still, but my hat’s off to him for the year he did put in,” Pry said. “He’s a young man that had never played linebacker, but he worked hard to learn it, played hard, and didn’t allow things to slow him down. He has a big offseason in front of him. He places very high expectations on himself and he has obviously big potential so he’s going to be exciting moving forward.”
Enrolling early does not in any way guarantee early or even future success. Among the 24 who came to Penn State in the Januarys since 2014, only a handful have actually been starters or major contributors.
There’s wide receiver/punt returner DeAndre Thompkins and offensive lineman Chasz Wright from the 2014 class. There’s Davis from the 2015 group, which also included Tommy Stevens. McGovern is the only January enrollee from the 2016 group who has seen a start, while K.J. Hamler and Mike Miranda, who garnered his first start in the 2018 regular-season ender against Maryland, have started for PSU (albeit in Year 2). A third member of that group, safety Lemont Wade, has been a significant special teams player. And of the 2018 group, there’s Parsons and fellow linebacker Jesse Luketa, who has played in 12 games, a good bit of it on special teams.
In 2014, Thompkins decided to enroll early, not even knowing who Penn State’s head coach would be. Same goes for Wright, juco transfer Tarow Barney and high school grads Michael O’Connor and Antonie White. (The latter two transferred from Penn State.) Franklin was introduced as the head coach on Jan. 11, 2014, and classes started at Penn State on Jan. 13.
“Me, Chasz, Antoine — all the guys who came in early — we kind of had the mindset that no matter who the coach is that comes in and no matter what his personality was, we were just going to take it and do the best we could with it. Then we’d go forward,” said Thompkins, who made the most of his time at PSU, earning 20 starts and also two degrees.
“We did commit to a different coach,” Thompkins added. “But more importantly, we committed to the school and the team more than the coach. We didn’t know what we were getting into. But we were 100% into Penn State.”
The quick and early transition from high school to college in a freezing January in State College isn’t always easy. Isaiah Humphries, whose father played at Penn State, arrived in January 2018 from Texas and announced that he was transferring in November 2018. And in Sunday night, linebacker Brelin Faison-Wallace — an early enrollee in January 2017 — announced he was transferring as well.
Stevens had his own set of challenges. In early January 2015, Stevens arrived on Penn State’s campus from Indiana and was admittedly not physically ready for major college football.
“I had wisdom teeth surgery right before I got here,” Stevens recalled in an interview over the summer. “I hurt my shoulder before I got here too. I was in the worst shape of my life before I got here.”
When Stevens arrived, he was 6-foot-3-1/4 inches and weighed 184 pounds. Now, he’s 6-5 and 240. On Saturday he earned his undergraduate degree — with a year’s worth of eligibility remaining. And when winter workouts begin early in 2019, Stevens will already have more time at Penn State than any other player on the roster.
EARLY ENROLLEES: A HISTORY
Here’s a year-by-year look since 2014 at the Penn State football players who were early enrollees and arrived on campus in the January in their first year at PSU:
2014 — Tarow Barney (juco), Michael O’Connor, DeAndre Thompkins, Antoine White, Chasz Wright
2015 — Colin Castagna (transfer), Tyler Davis (transfer), Sterling Jenkins, Paris Palmer (juco), Tommy Stevens
2016 — Connor McGovern, Danny Dalton, Alex Gellerstadt, Jake Zembiac
2017 — Brelin Faison-Wallace, K.J. Hamler, Mike Miranda, Lamont Wade
2018 — Trent Gordon, Isaiah Humphries, Zack Kuntz, Jesse Luketa, Micah Parsons, Nick Tarburton