Nolan Rucci’s commitment to Wisconsin represents a big recruiting swing-and-miss for Penn State and coach James Franklin.
It’s the kind of whiff with which Nittany Nation may be losing patience.
Rucci, a 6-foot-8, 295-pound offensive lineman from Warwick High School, is the highest-ranked football recruit in the 48-year history of the Lancaster-Lebanon League. Everybody wanted this kid: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Notre Dame … everybody.
Penn State seemed right for Rucci for a lot of reasons.
The obvious ones: His dad played O-line at Penn State and in the NFL. His mom was a field hockey All-American there. They live a two-hour drive from Happy Valley, and the family holds football season tickets.
Penn State offers Rucci’s preferred major, Astronomy and Astrophysics. So do Wisconsin and Ohio State, but Clemson, Alabama and Notre Dame do not.
It’s just as true that Rucci seemed right for Penn State.
Even compared to most football coaches, Franklin is a believer in big guys — recall his famous preference for athletes with “massive heads, big hands, long arms and big feet’’ — and in building a team around linemen.
Offensive linemen, in particular, are like pitchers in baseball. You can’t have too many of them.
Bluntly, Franklin could use a recruiting triumph, especially in Pennsylvania.
Penn State’s 2021 recruiting class ranks 34th nationally, according to the composite ranking compiled by 24/7 Sports. That trails Pitt in Pennsylvania, and Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Maryland (!), Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota in the Big Ten. It’s just two spots ahead of Rutgers.
Of the top 10 Pennsylvanians in the 2021 class, eight have committed, none to Penn State. One of the other two, safety Derrick Davis of Gateway, is considered a Penn State lean, although Clemson, LSU and Ohio State are still in it. The Lions do not seem involved with the other, athlete Tysheem Johnson of Neumann Goretti.
For the 2020 class, Penn State finished 15th nationally, and critically lost out to Ohio State for the country’s top-ranked wide receiver, Julian Fleming, a Pennsylvania kid Franklin had been pursuing for years.
Franklin has a reputation as a brilliant and relentless recruiter, and the evidence for it is much greater than the evidence against it. Penn State is off to a strong start in 2022 recruiting, with six verbals, five of them four-stars.
Some of the current slump, if that’s what it is, is just bad luck.
In 2016, Penn State beat Ohio State, won the Big Ten championship, and had a verbal commitment from Justin Fields, a game-changing QB prospect who might have been to Penn State as Deshaun Watson was to Clemson.
Since then, 31 wins, but near misses in big moments. Two one-point losses to Ohio State. Brutal, narrow losses at Pitt, at Michigan State and to USC in the Rose Bowl. Fifth- and sixth-place finishes in the playoff race when four teams make it.
Justin Fields is a Heisman Trophy candidate. For Ohio State.
Despite all that, this might have been Franklin’s best team, had COVID-19 not torn the season asunder and cost Penn State its best player, All-America linebacker Micah Parsons.
Further, the pandemic cost Franklin and his staff their best recruiting weapon, the on-campus visit.
"Their big sell, and the coaches do a great job with all that stuff, is the feeling kids get when they get onto campus and they get within that community,’’ Brian Dohn, a national recruiting analyst for 24/7, said Tuesday.
“It doesn't matter when you go to Penn State. You can go to that wrestling match in December that is sold out and you get the feel for it. You go to the White Out Game, which is always against Ohio State or Michigan or some big-time game, where the atmosphere is absolutely ridiculous. There is so much to it.
"I don't know of any other top 20 program that has been impacted by the pandemic and not being able to make visits as harshly as Penn State."