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Penn State's growing reach into the Deep South is helping it assemble one of the nation's top recruiting classes, once again.
This effort so far is different from past years, though, in that it goes beyond convincing highly rated Florida running backs to join them.
James Franklin and his Nittany Lion staff have received recent verbal commitments from two of the top defenders in the nation − both of them from the super-intense recruiting grounds of Alabama.
Tomarrion Parker and DaKaari Nelson, highly rated four-star prospects, pledged to Penn State this month despite their close proximity to the likes of Auburn, national champion Georgia, the Florida schools and, of course, Nick Saban's Crimson Tide. The Lions were able to pull receiver Harrison "Tre" Wallace out of Alabama in the 2021 class, and he expects to become part of the rotation this fall.
Parker lives in Phenix City, Alabama, less than an hour from Auburn − where his head high school coach (Patrick Nix) and son (Bo Nix) played quarterback. In the end, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end chose the Lions over offers from Auburn, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.
Nelson is a 6-foot-3, 200-pound safety from Selma, Alabama. His other recruiting finalists reportedly were Auburn, Clemson, Tennessee, Oregon and Kentucky.
These verbal commitments come in the middle of a Nittany Lions' recruiting hot streak that expects to run through July. Coach James Franklin's program is among the nation's leaders in early commitments (15) and owns one of its most highly regarded classes (as high as No. 3 nationally).
Even when considering prospect rating averages exclusively, the Lions are still rising in the Top 10 of most national recruiting sites.
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Nelson and Parker (a Top 100 overall prospect in some evaluations) are big national recruiting wins for a program trying to quickly rebound from two subpar seasons on the field. Ohio State, Notre Dame and Georgia are at the top of national recruiting rankings now.
"I think they got an absolute steal" with Parker, said Patrick Nix, Phenix City Central High's head coach. "They got one of the better d'ends in the country.
"He's big, tall, rangy, long, athletic. ... He's rated so high because he can do it all."
It appears the Nittany Lions expect to rise even higher in the coming weeks − and stay within recruiting striking distance of rival Ohio State, the national power that is the measure for everyone else in the Big Ten.
The Lions could potentially close on a number of 4-star recruits by the end of July, including a pair of much-needed linebackers, a safety, a receiver and another Florida running back.
"I think (Penn State's) doing a better job of recruiting SEC country than in the past," said national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. "(Parker) is not a priority for Alabama, but I will tell you schools like Auburn and Florida wanted this kid, wanted him very badly."
Overall, "Penn State is just recruiting on an increasingly high level at this moment," said Ryan Snyder, a recruiting analyst with On3.com and Blue-White Illustrated. He gave credit to the revamped recruiting support staff, including former Nittany Lion star Alan Zemaitis.
Parker committed to Penn State soon after his first visit to State College and told this to 247Sports and recruiting analyst Steve Wiltfong: “Penn State, we’re definitely going to rise. A lot of people they’re going to buy in so be on the look out.
“Penn State fits me, all the boxes checked,” he added. “I felt that home vibe. Me and my family loved it. We weren’t thinking about any other place after we left.”
The Lions also are putting together a dominating effort in the state of Virginia, possibly landing its top three prospects before the end of summer.
Here's a look at who they could add to their 2023 class in the next couple of weeks, which would keep them in the Top 10 nationally heading into the upcoming season:
King Mack, safety, Florida
The four-star safety from Fort Lauderdale, Florida isn't big on stature (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) but makes up for that with elite speed, instincts and ball skills.
He helped storied St. Thomas Aquinas High win its third-straight state title in football, then went out and won a Florida state track and field gold medal in the 400 meters.
He was offered for football by the likes of Miami, Florida and Texas A&M but appears, at the end, to be deciding between Penn State and Michigan State.
"Can without a doubt fly, but more than comfortable just patrolling the back-end of a defense as he isn’t afraid to stick his nose in the box and provide run support on first or second down. Owns valuable experience as a blitzer in passing situations, as well," according to his scouting report on 247Sports.
Tony Rojas, linebacker, Virginia
— Tony “🏎” Rojas ✪ (@Tony_Rojas5) June 20, 2022
The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder possesses ideal size and speed for his position and would fill a big need, as defensive coordinator Manny Diaz looks to rebuild Penn State's most famous position.
Rojas is scheduled to make his decision known July 5, picking between the Lions, Georgia, Clemson and Miami.
He would help boost Penn State's thin linebacking group, which, for now, is in drastic need of proven playmakers.
Ta'Mere Robinson, linebacker, Pittsburgh
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The Brashear High junior, already at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, could still develop into an edge pass rusher in college. The 4-star prospect will start at linebacker, where he's regarded by some as the top talent in Pennsylvania, certainly the top defender. He's athletic enough to play safety now for his high school team.
He's expected to make his college decision known on July 15, picking between the Lions, Miami and Virginia Tech.
Treyaun Webb, running back, Florida
One of the top running backs in the nation could be the latest from Florida to get their shot to star in State College.
The Jacksonville native would join Florida tailbacks Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes at Penn State. Recently transferred Noah Cain also went to high school in Florida.
Webb possesses a good size-speed combination at (6-1, 200 pounds) and is rated at the nation's No. 5 running back in the 2023 class, according to 247Sports. Landing him appears to be a battle between the Lions, Florida and South Carolina, though he's also been offered by the likes of Georgia and Oklahoma.
The Lions also are going after Pennsylvania tailback London Montgomery, a highly productive but smaller and less-acclaimed runner from Scranton.
Cam Selder, athlete, Virginia
The receiver and defensive back prospect is 6-foot-1, 220 pounds and is considered the nation's No. 3 "athlete" prospect by 247Sports.
He just took his official recruiting visit to Penn State and expects to decide between the Lions, Maryland and Tennessee, possibly by the end of July. He currently stars at Northumberland High in Heathsville, Virginia.
His cousin, Sal Wormley, is an offensive lineman for the Lions and hosted Selder on his official visit weekend.
Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.
This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Penn State football recruits southern players from AL, FLA