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Penn State football recruiting analysis: Can critical 2022 class deliver on promise?

Frank Bodani
York Daily Record

Another fast Penn State football recruiting start officially elevated to something more serious on New Year's Day.

Their highest-rated player yet picked the Nittany Lions — another in-state star in a class of high school juniors that appears primed to make up for missed opportunities.

Delone Catholic's Zack Fields (30) tackles Steelton-Highspire's Mehki Flowers during the PIAA District 3 Class A championship game on Friday, October 30, 2020.

A group that will finally legitimize their coach's claims of "Dominating the State."

One that will help mint James Franklin's newly formed staff as his most prolific one yet.

And, most importantly, one that will finally provide the Nittany Lions with the necessary resources to not only break into the College Football Playoffs but remain as contender for a while.

Steel High's Mehki Flowers, who doubles as a dynamic receiver and defensive back, gave his word to Penn State on the first day of 2021.

The Nittany Lions now own the early No. 2 recruiting class in the nation for 2022, one built with an in-state foundation, starting with Central York quarterback and leader Beau Pribula.

Central York's Beau Pribula runs the ball into the end zone for a touchdown during the PIAA District 3 Class 6A Championship against York High in Emigsville on Friday, November 6, 2020.

They are feeding off the deepest pool of Pennsylvania football talent in 15 years, according to Ryan Snyder, a recruiting analyst with Blue-White Illustrated and Rivals.com.

That has set up the Lions for their second Top 10 recruiting finish under Franklin (The other was in 2018).

To make that happen, Penn State's staff must continue to build this momentum during the COVID-19 mandated blackout on recruiting campus visits, camps and combines. Those restrictions probably will not be lifted until at least the spring.

They also must be able to keep a majority of these recruits committed once they will be able to finally visit other schools and shop their decisions, as expected. These eight highly rated prospects cannot make their verbal commitments binding for nearly a year.

In Penn State's favor are the strong ties building among class members because of proximity, starting with good friends Pribula and Manheim Township receiver Anthony Ivey.

"There's a stronger home, in-state distance pull during this pandemic. You're more comfortable with schools closer to you," said Adam Friedman, a Mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst with Rivals.

And the timing for this success could not be better.

The Lions are coming off a disappointing 4-5 season in which they were dismantled by injuries, defections and COVID-19 restrictions. They also did not fare as well as expected in the current 2021 recruiting cycle, particularly missing on several in-state seniors

This hit came after the Lions were on the verge of making the playoffs in 2016 and 2017 and started 8-0 in 2019.

Their response, though, has been swift and decisive — and with a much larger class to work with.

IMG Academy's Xavier Terrell (5) celebrates his touchdown against Ravenwood with Tyler Booker (54) during the second half at Ravenwood High School in Brentwood, Tenn., Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.

They're fast-tracking the 2022 cycle with more verbal commitments than most anyone else nationally, each of them high-end, 4-star talents. Flowers and Pribula are joined by Ivey, Philadelphia defensive end Ken Talley and Downingtown offensive tackle Drew Shelton, who recently transferred to the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

The Lions also have pledges from far-flung tight ends Holden Staes (Georgia) and Jerry Cross (Wisconsin).

Only Ohio State has more verbal commitments (10) and is ranked higher so far in 2022.

Recruiting experts, such as Friedman, point to the strong personalities and relationships in Penn State's class as positives to finishing strong. He mentioned extrovert "recruiters" such as Flowers and Talley.

Pribula, for example, "is not outspoken but he has some clout around him now," for leading Central to the state title game, Friedman said. "I think these guys can help bring in players down the road."

Penn State does own some promising traction for a handful of other top-shelf prospects.

The Lions are pushing hard for Reading 4-star running back Nicholas Singleton (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) and Philadelphia's Enai White (6-5, 230) — one of the top defensive ends in the country — and 4-star cornerback Keenan Nelson, Jr.

The Lions also appear in good standing with potential 5-star defensive end Dani Dennis-Sutton and defensive tackle teammate Kwan Williams from the McDonough School in Owings Mills, Maryland. Franklin has recruited McDonough well of late, landing defensive linemen PJ Mustipher and D'Von Ellies and linebacker Curtis Jacobs.

Dennis-Sutton (6-5, 250) "is so dynamic. He's got his alpha mentality about him. He's a leader out there. He's vocal, and guys rally around him," Friedman said.

There's also this tie: Shelton will be playing at IMG alongside another potential 5-star lineman in offensive tackle Tyler Booker, as well as 4-star quarterback A.J. Duffy — prominent Penn State targets.

Booker grew up in Connecticut and attended high school briefly in New Jersey.

Penn State should have plenty of room to fill out this 2022 class, too. They could land up to the limit of 25 recruits after bringing in only 15 or so with the current group that will be finalized next month.

Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at fbodani@ydr.com and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.