The Great Recruiting Debate

Once again we take a closer look at the areas that are fueling the Nittany Lion football recruiting engine — examining the regions where Penn State is dominating and addressing those spots where the program has some work to do.

It's a typical debate in the weeks after signing day: whether Penn State should protect its "homeland" turf, primarily focusing on talent within the 300-mile radius of State College; or take a wider approach to recruiting by expanding its efforts to a more national view. The issue itself tends to be a "grass-is-always-greener" debate, though.

It seems that no matter what the class makeup is, there are always concerns that arise because Penn State has "failed" to fulfill either side of the equation. The first article I ever wrote for years ago actually dove into this topic and was titled "The Great Recruiting Debate." Since then, it has become a periodic review of the current recruiting class.

The Numbers

The biggest factor hindering Penn State (or any other school) from flat-out dominating a region is the NCAA mandated 85-man scholarship limit. Gone are the days where a program could lock up an entire region's talent by offering an unlimited number of scholarships. This approach was what led to the historical landscape of college football; one where a few programs around various regions of the country dominated the sport over several decades.

Prior to scholarship limits Southern California owned the West Coast, Texas owned its home state, Nebraska owned the western portion of the central Midwest, Notre Dame owned the eastern portion, Miami owned Florida, Oklahoma owned a large piece of the Southwest, Alabama owned a major section of the deep South and Penn State owned much of the mid-Atlantic region.

Today, thanks to scholarship limits, the lay of college football's former landscape is all but gone. Annual recruiting classes can only include a maximum of 25 players, so coaches have to be fairly diligent in their choices of who to extend offers to.

Penn State, like most other schools, overlays its needs with the talent it sees as a fit — athletically and academically. Given the fact that in years past the Nittany Lions have had several recruiting "hotbeds" in and around Lion Country, the recent sentiment within the program is that it rarely needs to look across the nation for a prospect given the talent in regional states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Virginia and Delaware.

The one recent exception to this has been Ohio. In years past Penn State regularly pulled in impressive talent from the Buckeye State. Names like Ki-Jana Carter, Curtis Enis and Joe Jurevicius are only a few of the legendary Ohio natives who have impacted PSU. However, since Jim Tressel took the helm in Columbus, the Buckeyes have maintained a firm grasp on their in-state talent — for the most part.

This local recruiting approach has seemingly shifted in recent years, from pulling in prospects from "outside" states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, Michigan and California, with recent classes, to shifting back to a strong focus on the states surrounding Pennsylvania, not to mention the Keystone State itself. This year PSU shifted slightly with a focus on the Happy Valley perimeter while reaching out as far as Arizona (Ryan Nowicki), Indiana (Sam Ficken) and Michigan (Anthony Zettel, Allen Robinson) to pull in some key prospects.

Protecting the Homeland

Many fans feel Pennsylvania should be priority No. 1 for the Lions. After all, the school's mission is to educate and serve the citizens of the Keystone State. Of these fans who believe in this approach, many feel that the talent in Pennsylvania and surrounding states is often more than adequate to feed the majority of PSU's recruiting needs inside and out. However, this has proven to be a cyclical approach depending on the talent Pennsylvania and the handful of states around it can produce.

Let's just look at the last three recruiting classes. The past three Penn State recruiting classes have had 63 scholarship recruits. Of those 63 prospects, 34 have been from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware or New York. That's 54 percent, which is down five percent from the 2009 breakdown.

So the question becomes, is attracting over half of Penn State's talent from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware protecting the homeland? And is it the ideal approach to recruiting? While some would say yes, others would say no.

Some significant Keystone State prospects have headed elsewhere in recent years — Delvon Simmons went to UNC, Ben Koyack went to Notre Dame and Kyshoen Jarrett went to Virginia Tech. But were any of those players an actual priority for PSU and would it have been a smart move to sacrifice an out-of-state player like Ryan Nowicki or Anthony Zettel to get a few more native players from the commonwealth? Again, some would say yes and others would disagree.

Looking Across Borders

In the past three classes the Nittany Lions have received 41 percent of their players from outside the "traditional" recruiting region. The staff has looked primarily to the immediate south and west to attract players to Happy Valley.

In those three most recent classes the Lions have picked up players from:

Maryland: 11
Virginia: 5
Michigan: 4
Connecticut: 2
Arizona: 1
Indiana: 1
Ohio: 1
North Carolina: 1
Tennessee: 1
Texas: 1
Canada: 1

In other words, the Lions have taken away players from in-state programs like Michigan, Michigan State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Maryland and Connecticut, among others. So the recruiting process cuts both ways; where Penn State loses some "home grown" talent, so does every other school in the nation.

The Bottom Line

No matter where a program's talent is attracted from, this debate will continue to swirl annually. In recent history, it would appear, conscious or not, that Penn State has struck a fairly consistent balance between attracting about "half" of its talent from "Lion Country" and attracting the other "half" from outside the immediate region. And that region appears to shift back and forth between the South (e.g. North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia) and the midwest (e.g. Michigan, Illinois, Indiana) with a prospect here or there from distant locales like Texas, California, Arizona or Louisiana.

The question is what is the ideal balance between these two approaches? This is something fans will continue to debate and can only be answered by the staff's recruiting results. The major question to be answered is whether PSU can use its recent successes in states like Michigan and Texas as a stepping stone to move toward achieving what it has built in states like Virginia and Maryland and the Carolinas in recent years.


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