In college football, recruiting is what separates the good programs from the great ones.
A good program can attract talent and sustain success for periods of time, with a few “rebuilds” here and there, but a great one just reloads from year to year, replacing top-end talent with more top-end talent.
For Penn State, 2019 will be a year to determine where the Nittany Lions sit in the hierarchy of college football.
To date, head coach James Franklin has been able to resupply his roster with capable athletes each year. That was most clear in replacing generational talent Saquon Barkley with recently drafted Miles Sanders.
While Sanders wasn’t as elite as Barkley was, Franklin’s ability to replace one NFL talent with another NFL talent is what keeps Penn State in contention for the Big Ten East.
But replacing one talented player is nothing compared to what Franklin will be tasked with in 2019.
Sanders, who rushed for 1,649 yards on 276 attempts in three years at PSU, has departed, and so did quarterback Trace McSorley, who started under center for three years and racked up 9,899 passing yards and added 1,697 yards on the ground.
Both are now in the NFL, as Sanders was taken in the second round by the Philadelphia Eagles and McSorley in the sixth by the Baltimore Ravens.
In addition, offensive guard Connor McGovern, a standout up front for Penn State, was taken in the third round by Dallas.
On the defensive end, safety Nick Scott went in the seventh round to the Rams, defensive back Amani Oruwariye went in the fifth to Detroit and defensive end Shareef Miller went to Philadelphia in the fourth round.
That’s a lot to replace, but it’s also a good sign for Penn State that Franklin is churning out multiple draft picks a season after putting Saquon Barkley into the league.
But again, that’s a lot to lose, and it doesn’t include McSorley’s heir-apparent, Tommy Stevens, transferring to Mississippi State or any other transfers. Suffice it to say that Franklin’s recruiting will be put to the test this year.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re a Penn Stater, though.
According to recruiting website 247 Sports, in the past four recruiting cycles (2016-2019), Penn State has ranked no worse than 20th nationally, which was in 2016. The 2017 class was 15th in the nation, and the Nittany Lions’ 2018 class ranked sixth nationally, and in 2019 was 13th.
Put it all together, and you’ve got a program that, on paper, should remain competitive.
But, the news isn’t all perfect. In each of those classes, Penn State has not once been ranked highest in the Big Ten, and in fact, has not been ranked highest in the East Division.
The 2016 class was fourth in the conference and in the East behind Ohio State (4th nationally), Michigan (8th) and Michigan State (17th).
The 2017 class was ranked behind Ohio State (2nd) and Michigan (5th), and the last two classes have each been ranked second overall. Ohio State (2nd) narrowly outranked the Lions’ 2018 class, and Michigan (8th) did so in the most recent round of recruiting.
Put it all together, and you’ve got one of the most competitive divisions in college football, and perhaps even the toughest.
You also have a unique opportunity to see if Penn State has returned to an elite status. The Nittany Lions have had their pick of the litter with four-star and five-star recruits at just about every position in recent years, but so have the Lions’ biggest rivals.
Will 2019 and beyond feature the same levels of championship contention and elite players as recent years have for Penn State?
Early signs say yes, but this upcoming season will be the proof.
(Joel Whetzel, a sports reporter at the Bradford Era, can be reached at email@example.com.)