NCF On The Trail: Penn State Nittany Lions

Getting to know Jashon Cornell 

April, 18, 2014
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video Throughout this recruiting cycle, RecruitingNation will profile a number of ESPN 300 prospects in the 2015 class, including an inside look at the prospect, his recruitment, a scouting report and what college program could benefit when he ultimately makes his decision.

When you attend a school as prestigious as Cretin-Derham Hall, as No. 16-ranked recruit Jashon Cornell does, you are bound to have connections. The Minnesota school has produced its share of college and NFL players over the years, including associate dean of students Marcus Freeman, who played for Notre Dame.


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videoUrban Meyer has come away with the Big Ten’s top-ranked recruiting class every year since he was hired at Ohio State. His aggressive style and history of winning have helped put the Buckeyes in a category of their own when it comes to recruiting.

A big part of that, according to a few top-ranked recruits, is because Meyer brought an SEC mentality to the Big Ten. Being relentless, aggressive and surrounding himself with similar coaches has helped bring top talent to Columbus year after year.


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ESPN 300: Top Big Ten targets 

April, 16, 2014
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The top-ranked prospects tend to wait out the process, so there are still some huge names at the top of Big Ten recruiting boards. The top targets will be fought over by most teams within the conference, which will make for some interesting recruiting battles.

Here is a look at the top five targets within the Big Ten in the 2015 ESPN 300.

DE Jashon Cornell
6-4, 270 pounds
ESPN 300 rank: No. 16



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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today's offerings: California wide receiver Trent Irwin showed he’s among the nation’s best players at Sunday’s Nike Football Training Camp, and UCLA has a major need at the running back spot and will probably have to look all over the country to fill it.


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Top position classes: Big Ten 

February, 25, 2014
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With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes in each conference. For the full series, click here.

Quarterback
While Penn State has one of the nation’s top young quarterbacks returning in Christian Hackenberg, the Nittany Lions needed to look to the long-term future and build depth at the position in this class. James Franklin certainly did that with his initial class in Happy Valley. No. 6 pocket passer Michael O’Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy) has already enrolled, and will quickly begin his development process. His size, ball placement and upside make him a near ideal fit in Penn State’s pro-style scheme. Three-star athlete Trace McSorley (Ashburn, Va./Briar Woods) is a second possible signal-caller in the class.


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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: Snapchat is quickly becoming one of the most popular forms of social media around, but college football coaches won’t be able to use it as a recruiting tool; keep an eye on Indianapolis, because the city again will be one of the top spots in the Midwest for recruiters; and one of the top 2015 prospects in Missouri has a busy spring on tap.


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Top position classes: WR 

February, 12, 2014
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With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes. For the full series, click here.

Nationally (and SEC)
While the Baylor Bears had an exceptional wide receiver class, the nod here goes to LSU. Not only did the Tigers sign the nation's No. 1 receiver in Malachi Dupre (River Ridge, La./John Curtis Christian), but also the No. 3 ranked receiver in Trey Quinn (Lake Charles, La./Barbe) and ESPN 300 No. 271 D.J. Chark (Alexandria, La./Alexandria Senior) and No. 283 Tony Upchurch (Pearland, Texas/Dawson). In Dupre, LSU snagged the No. 17 prospect overall on signing day. He has a tall, lengthy frame with a near ideal size-and-speed combination and elite high-point ball skills. Quinn will enter LSU as an advanced route-runner with separation skills and the ability to pluck the ball outside of the framework of his body. Chark brings initial quickness and the vertical speed to take the top off a defense, and Upchurch is a big body who continues to add bulk and could eventually transition to a flex type of position.

The Tigers had the nation’s best wide receiver class; here’s which schools had the best in each of the remaining power conferences:


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More than 250 players signed with Big Ten football programs last Wednesday. That got me to thinking: Where is all the talent coming from?

I analyzed every team's class and the hometowns of each signee to figure out which states produced the most Big Ten 2014 recruits. That yielded a list of 17 states from which Big Ten schools landed at least three players in this year's class. Some thoughts on the results:
  • Not surprisingly, Ohio leads the way with 37 signees. The Buckeye State has long been the main feeding ground for Big Ten schools. Every team except Iowa and Nebraska had at least one signee from Ohio, while Ohio State led the way with nine. Indiana was next with six.
  • Another expected result was that Florida finished second among the states producing signees, with 27. The Sunshine State is so talent-rich that it's almost impossible not to recruit there, even if Big Ten schools aren't always getting the top players out of the state. Wisconsin had more Florida signees than any Big Ten school with seven. Northwestern and Minnesota were the only schools not to sign a Florida player this year.
  • Illinois had 26 signees, and it was the only state to produce a signee for all 12 Big Ten schools. Tim Beckman's Illini signed five home-state players, while Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan State reeled in four apiece.
  • Georgia was also a popular place for Big Ten coaches, as 17 signees hail from the Peach State. Indiana remained active in Georgia, signing five players from there. Who says SEC country is off limits for the Big Ten? Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana combined to produce 29 Big Ten recruits this year.
  • Texas ranked fifth with 16 signees, and a quarter of them went to Nebraska. Texas and California are two huge recruiting pipelines, but the Big Ten landed only three players out of the Golden State.
  • Talent varies from year to year, but I was surprised to see only 15 Big Ten signees from Michigan. Of those, nine went to either Michigan State or Michigan. Pennsylvania, another traditional Big Ten hotbed, produced only nine league recruits, with a third of them staying home to go to Penn State.
  • Just how important are the additions of Rutgers and Maryland to Big Ten recruiting? Big Ten schools signed 14 players out of New Jersey and New York combined, and 19 out of Maryland/Virginia/Washington, D.C. You can probably expect those numbers to increase in the future.
  • Speaking of Maryland and Rutgers, I didn't include the new schools in this study. Rutgers made hay in New Jersey (eight signees) and Florida (seven), while Maryland signed seven players out of its own state and D.C. The two schools also combined to bring in five players from Pennsylvania.
  • Minnesota produced eight recruits, and all eight signed with the Gophers. Similarly, all five Iowa prospects cast their lot with the Hawkeyes, and eight of the nine Indiana signees went to either Purdue or the Hoosiers.
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson’s first recruiting class was put together in a matter of weeks -- a timetable cut unenviably short, much like the task of Penn State coach James Franklin.

Their approaches, though, were vastly different.

When Clawson left Bowling Green, he also left his recruiting class. Franklin, however, continued to pursue some of the recruits he had committed to Vanderbilt, and was praised for flipping five pledges from his former school. For some of those teenagers, the relationship with the head coach overrides the actual school. They commit to the coach, not the program.

[+] EnlargeDave Clawson
Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesWake Forest coach Dave Clawson didn't believe it was right to try to recruit players who were committed to Bowling Green, his former school.
"It's not about the buildings; it's about the people inside the buildings," Franklin told ESPN.com Big Ten reporter Adam Rittenberg. "That comes down to relationships and trust and all those things. We've had guys we've been recruiting across the country for two years, and we were going to stick with those guys. The same thing with the recruits and families. They were comfortable with us and who we are as men and how we conduct ourselves. It also helped that we went from one school to another that has similar philosophies when it comes to academics."

Clawson, who was hired in December, used the recruiting dead period to hire his staff and called it a “three-week sprint” to start from scratch on the recruiting trail. He didn't consider Bowling Green’s targets much of an option, for several reasons.

“I didn’t think it was right to do that,” Clawson said. “We didn’t want to recruit anybody who had committed to us at our previous school. There were a handful of guys we had recruited there that had not committed there, and part of the reason they didn’t commit there is they were probably above us. Some of those players were able to get on [at Wake Forest], and I think those were some of our better commits.”

Ironically, so was a former Vanderbilt pledge.

Once Franklin left Vandy, that opened the door for Wake Forest to recruit some of those pledges, too. The Deacs’ top recruit, receiver Kameron Uter, was once a Vanderbilt commit. Head coaching changes open the door for last-minute decisions and late pushes by rival coaches. Clawson said the Wake staff was careful, though, to respect solid commitments.

“What we did, quite honestly, was, if that relationship was intact -- probably not too many kids were going to switch if they had committed to a place that had the same head coach, same coordinator, same recruiting coach, all those relationships,” he said. “If there were instances that that relationship had changed because of a head coaching change, we certainly approached those players and asked if they were still committed. If they told us no, that became our opportunity to get guys we felt were ACC-level players that we weren’t now at a relationship disadvantage.”

Clawson and his staff did the best they could under the circumstances -- just as Franklin did at Penn State. They just had a different philosophy in how to get it done.

Top position classes: QBs 

February, 10, 2014
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With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes. For the full series, click here.

Nationally (and SEC)
The Florida Gators had a major need at quarterback in the Class of 2014, and Will Muschamp and staff more than filled it, signing two of the nation’s top signal-callers. Third-ranked dual-threat prospect Will Grier (Davidson, N.C./Davidson Day School) is already on campus and preparing for spring practice, while No. 7 dual-threat prospect Treon Harris (Miami/Booker T. Washington) was a huge signing-day flip from Florida State. Both prospects are great athletes who are accustomed to operating uptempo offenses. This should also help newly hired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who will install a similar scheme in Gainesville.

The Gators had the nation's best QB class; here's which schools had the best in each of the remaining power conferences:


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Scenes from signing day at Penn State

February, 6, 2014
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James FranklinMCT via Getty Images James Franklin announced player signings on a NFL draft-style board.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop rolled off his hotel mattress at 5 a.m. Wednesday and skipped his usual breakfast of Froot Loops and Pepsi.

He was needed at the Lasch Football Building, after all. And even Toucan Sam couldn't stand in his way. It was one of his boss James Franklin's favorite days of the year, a Christmas of sorts for the recruiting world, so Shoop preferred to dust the snow off his SUV and start what would inevitably become a 12- or 14-hour workday.

It was the most relaxing day he's had since landing in Happy Valley three weeks ago.

"I'd agree with that statement," Shoop told ESPN.com on Wednesday afternoon. "There were no surprises today, but these last three weeks have just been a whirlwind for us. It's been kind of crazy."

[+] EnlargePenn State
MCT via Getty ImagesLike most major programs, Penn State's war room was a buzz of activity on signing day.
Before the fax machine even began whirring, he caught about a half-hour of Michigan State's defensive film -- something he feels he can learn from -- and then polished off his report on the top safeties for 2015.

By 7 a.m., he entered Penn State's blue-and-white war room, a place where he'd stand in a corner with a can of Pepsi and intermittently rush out of the room, stick a finger to his ear and chat with 2014 commits and 2015 prospects. He talked to about 20 recruits before the clock struck noon, all the while skipping the room's three coffeemakers in favor of about five cans of soda.

"The guys kind of make fun of me for that," Shoop said with a laugh, adding he's no coffee drinker.

He watched the faces of signees light up when Franklin spoke with them via FaceTime on a big screen. He was buzzing around the football building, somewhere, when a line of trumpets blared the school fight song moments after the fax of three-star tailback Nick Scott was received. And he chatted with alumni and the staff during the unusual lull.

Wednesday marked his 20th wedding anniversary. His wife remains in Nashville, Tenn., and they'll meet for a breakfast date Thursday. But Shoop couldn't skip all this. You just don't miss signing day.

"Some people think this job is so glamorous, but 90 percent is a grind -- and 10 percent is glamorous," he said. "But that 10 percent that is glamorous is so incredible. It's such an incredible adrenaline rush. It's why you deal with the other 90 percent.

"This is that 10 percent."

To read signing day scenes from other teams, click here.
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Now that the 2014 class is in the books it’s time to take a look at which teams need to make a big splash in recruiting for the 2015 class. Below are five teams we feel have to perform well in recruiting to move forward and re-establish their programs among the college football elite. There are always peaks and valleys in recruiting, but there’s also an expectation level that some programs no matter what will always perform to a high standard and that’s not always realistic.

For these programs, it won’t just be about how good the players are that they sign in 2015; it will also be about what type of person that player is to represent the program and establish a new chemistry. These programs are laying down a new foundation, and it will be this class that will be looked back upon as one that got the ball rolling. These programs need to make the Tennessee-type splash of 2014. Just ask Ole Miss about its 2013 class and what one recruiting cycle can do to reenergize a program. We’ve closed the door on the 2014 class now, here’s to opening the door for the 2015 class. Let’s get off to a fast start shall we?


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Top 2015 targets: Big Ten 

February, 6, 2014
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Now that the 2014 class is wrapped up, it's time to shift our attention to 2015 prospects. Big Ten programs have had plenty of success already with the rising seniors, but there are some major targets a lot of teams will battle for within the conference.

Here is a look at the top five targets within the Big Ten.


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Signing day wrap: Big Ten

February, 5, 2014
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Signing day certainly lived up to the hype. With commitments, decommitments and drama across the board, there was a ton of action throughout the day within the Big Ten.

The biggest news on the day was when ESPN 300 defensive lineman Malik McDowell (Southfield, Mich./Southfield) committed to Michigan State, but never sent in his national letter of intent. Before the announcement, McDowell's parents were open about the fact they did not want their son to pick the Spartans.

[+] EnlargeMalik McDowell
John Albright/Icon SMIESPN 300 DL Malik McDowell picked Michigan State, but his parents aren't happy with his decision.
When he did commit to Michigan State, the parents refused to sign the letter of intent. While that document isn't completely necessary for the No. 60 ranked prospect to attend Michigan State, he does need to sign his Big Ten tender. That document ensures his scholarship and also needs a parent's signature.

The Spartans' coaching staff has been working feverishly to get the parents on board, but it has been an uphill battle.

B1G surprises

Amidst the McDowell drama, Ohio State snuck in and was able to get three-star defensive end Darius Slade (Montclair, N.J./Montclair) to flip from Michigan State.

Slade initially said he wanted to wait on signing with the Spartans and visit the Buckeyes after signing day. The Michigan State staff spoke with Slade and decided to move on once Slade said he wanted to take the trip to Columbus.

The Buckeyes reaped the rewards as Slade then sent in his letter of intent to the Ohio State fax machine and is signed for the 2014 class.

There must have been something in the water with Big Ten defensive end commits as former Nebraska commit Blake McClain (Jacksonville, Fla./Sandalwood) flipped to South Carolina.

The three-star defensive end had been committed to Florida State at one point, then decommitted and chose the Cornhuskers. All seemed to be well until signing day when McClain flipped to the Gamecocks. It is a significant loss for Nebraska at an inconvenient time.

B1G movers

Michigan State saw a huge rise in the class rankings, moving up 10 spots to No. 29 overall. A big part of that increase was due to McDowell. If the Spartans can keep him on board it will be a huge coup.

Michigan State also landed three-star athlete T.J. Harrell (Tampa, Fla./Tampa Catholic), giving the coaching staff 14 three-star commits to go along with eight four-stars in this class. Defensive tackle Craig Evans (Sun Prairie, Wisc./Sun Prairie) didn't commit on signing day, but he was a late flip, switching from Wisconsin.

Northwestern dropped four spots, but that was essentially due to the lower numbers in the class and the fact that the Wildcats had closed out their class.

Future is bright at Penn State

The Nittany Lions picked up a commitment from linebacker Torrence Brown (Tuscaloosa, Ala./Tuscaloosa Academy) to cap off James Franklin's first class as Penn State's head coach.

Franklin was not only able to keep the class intact, but added some outstanding prospects.

ESPN 300 defensive tackle Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) did decommit, but the addition of ESPN 300 wide receiver Saeed Blacknall (Manalapan, N.J./Manalapan) and three-star athlete Koa Farmer (Sherman Oaks, Calif./Notre Dame) helped Penn State finish No. 24 in the class rankings.

Franklin and his staff have already hit the ground running for the 2015 class as well and several junior prospects reported the Penn State coaches even spoke with them on signing day. There are apparently no brakes for this staff as they look to start building their first full class at Penn State.

Impact signings

Jabrill Peppers (Paramus, N.J./Paramus Catholic) faxed in his letter of intent to Michigan on signing day. On the surface that might not seem like much, but right up until the night before signing day Peppers had been contemplating holding off on putting ink to paper.

The nation’s No. 2 prospect had heard from a few other schools, but ultimately decided Tuesday night that he would sign with the Wolverines.

That was a crisis averted for Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who brought in the No. 18 class in the country. The Wolverines hadn't landed a commitment in the 2014 class since August and most recently fell from No. 12 overall. That is significant given the fact that Michigan at one point had the No. 1 ranked class for 2014.

Minnesota was also able to hang on to its biggest commitment with running back Jeff Jones (Minneapolis/Washburn). The ESPN 300 prospect had been wavering and hearing from a few schools, but announced he would stay committed with the Gophers during a ceremony at his school.

That is as good a commitment as coach Jerry Kill and his staff have landed. Jones is an explosive back.

All in all it was an exciting day for the future of the Big Ten. The conference ended with 34 ESPN 300 prospects and three teams -- Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State -- ranked in the top 25 of the class rankings.
Chance Sorrell stuck his finger in the air to hush his parents.

The Vanderbilt commit had waited for this phone call for close to two weeks. He had wandered the halls of Middletown (Ohio) High School and been stopped, several times, and asked by his teammates and teachers: "What's going on with your coach?" Back in early January, he didn't know where James Franklin would wind up -- or, by extension, where he would. No one did.

So, on the night of Jan. 11, he didn't want to miss the thrust of this phone call while his parents whispered in the background. It could determine his future. It could answer all the questions that raged inside the mind of the three-star offensive tackle. It could put an end to those difficult mornings waking up because it was so hard to fall asleep with this weighing on his mind.

So, on a Saturday night, when an unknown number flashed on his cell -- from Pennsylvania -- he leaped from the couch, muted the TV and sprinted along with his parents to the quieter kitchen. Franklin had been formally introduced as Penn State's head coach less than five hours earlier. It was 9 p.m. now.

And, sure enough, Franklin was on the other line.

Chance, we really like you and we want you to play here. And we're offering you a scholarship at Penn State --

Sorrell couldn't make out the last few words of Franklin's pitch because his parents, literally bouncing with excitement, whispered loudly: "Commit right now!" Sorrell pointed his finger toward his parents, as if to signify, "Just a second here."

When Franklin finished speaking, Sorrell's grin widened: "Yes, sir, I'm committing."

Can I take that as you committing to Penn State?

"Yeah."

Sorrell had never before even stepped foot on campus, so Franklin asked him to repeat himself twice more. And then, his voice rising as it's wont to do when he gets excited, Franklin asked one final time: So, you're telling me that Chance Sorrell is committing to Penn State?

"It got to the point," Sorrell said with a laugh, "where I finally just said, 'I, Chance Sorrell, am committing to Penn State.' And I guess he had about 10 people in the room because they started cheering when I said that. I think he just wanted me to say it like that."

Sorrell was the first commit of Franklin's Penn State coaching career, and it came less than four hours after Franklin stepped off the dais inside Beaver Stadium -- while T-shirts emblazoned with Franklin's slogan of "Dominate the region" were still ideas in business owners' heads. Franklin had landed in Happy Valley on a twin-jet less than 11 hours before.

Sorrell's commitment would set off a chain of other pledges -- seven more in less than a month -- and he promised Tuesday night he'd scan and email in his letter of intent by 7 a.m. Wednesday.

For the 265-pound prospect, the decision was an easy one. Hours before Franklin's call, he sat at his kitchen table while his father sprawled out a three-inch deck of coaches' business cards and pulled one at a time to ask whether he was interested. Wake Forest, Bowling Green (his first offer) and Tennessee were tossed into the "yes" pile.

But as soon as Franklin offered, those business cards were cleared off the table for good. He trusted Franklin and, although he had been committed to Vanderbilt since June, he felt even more loyal to his coach.

A day after originally committing to the Commodores, a dejected Sorrell picked up the phone to inform his head coach he had torn his labrum. And, if Franklin needed to rescind the offer, he totally understood.

"He told me, 'Chance, you committed to me -- and I'm committed to you. Even if you don't play a single snap, you're graduating with a degree from Vanderbilt,'" Sorrell said.

"So, of course, I wanted to follow him at Penn State. It just seemed like a tremendous fit."

Sorrell has since visited Happy Valley. He stared in awe over the 107,000 seats in Beaver Stadium, took in the players' lounge ("Vanderbilt didn't actually have a players' lounge," he added) and envisioned himself playing on the practice field and lifting in the blue and white weight room.

His recruitment to Penn State started with a phone call and, well, really ended with that same phone call. There was no doubt in Sorrell's mind that he wanted to play for Franklin and, when he received the Penn State offer, he didn't even really need to hear Franklin's pitch to become Franklin's first Penn State commit.

"I'd follow him anywhere," Sorrell said. "And it just seemed like a tremendous fit with a prestigious collegiate program like Penn State."

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