Timing, as much as anything, lends to end of Montgomery's Penn State run

I was vacationing in, of all places, London in the later stages of August 2022 when I got the text message from a colleague.

London Montgomery got hurt in a preseason scrimmage. Tore up his knee, was the early diagnosis. Didn’t look good for being able to play at all during his upcoming senior season. Five time zones ahead and just getting ready to fall asleep, I said something under my breath that can’t be printed in a family newspaper.

When you’re around the game enough, you know what it means: A really good prospect, with a boatload of potential, about a year away from living a dream, was going to have a tough time actually getting there. The timing just wasn’t good, in a changing game in which players have to strike quickly to secure their spot.

The fears there manifested themselves Thursday, as Montgomery — the Electric City legend who parlayed his dazzling career at Scranton Prep into a scholarship offer from his dream school — entered the transfer portal. More to the point, Montgomery’s Penn State career that started with so much promise as a four-star recruit ended less than a year after he arrived on campus in University Park last summer. He never got into a game, and statistically, his Penn State run amounts to five carries and eight yards in the Blue-White scrimmage April 13.

It’s a far cry from the hopes, which for Montgomery were high after he rushed for nearly 4,000 yards and 62 touchdowns in what amounted to 2½ seasons with the shortened Covid season of 2020 factored in.

But, it’s also a stark reminder that for all the power players have earned through Name, Image and Likeness laws and the freedom to come and go in the transfer portal in recent years, it works the other way, too.

Montgomery was neither alone among Nittany Lions in the portal, or the least surprising addition that appeared there Thursday — two days after the final date for players to enter during the spring window.

The sheer number of players who showed up in the portal on Penn State’s end is stunning and, potentially, telling. Five Nittany Lions might be a one-day portal record for the program.

Among those in are safety King Mack, which has to be viewed as a major surprise considering 1.) the play-making standout from Miami seemed a year away from making a push to be a starter, and 2.) players and coaches alike spent most of the 2023 season raving about his potential.

But the receiver position also took a hit, with senior Malik McClain entering. He likely wouldn’t have been a starter, but it’s not a stretch at a position lacking depth to think the 6-foot-4 former Florida State transfer could have been counted on to carve out some role on third downs.

Walk-on running back David Kency and little-used veteran lineman Golden Israel-Achumba also entered.

That’s a lot of depth, some of it at positions where experienced depth is on the weak side, to lose in one day.

Consider though that at least some of this might strangely be by Penn State’s design.

Though head coach James Franklin creatively dodged questions during the spring designed to get to the heart of the matter with the roster, the Nittany Lions by anyone’s count seemed to have more returning players on scholarship in 2024 than they do actual scholarships available.

The NCAA limits football scholarships to 85, and in October, the NCAA Division I Council voted last October to eliminate a longstanding rule that limited programs to bring in no more than 25 new players each year, be it via recruiting classes or transfers. A pause on that rule was initiated in 2020 when every player in college sports was granted an extra year of eligibility, and the advent of the transfer portal made it almost impossible for programs to abide by that policy anyway. So, they simply scrapped the rule.

However, it brought a new phrase into the lexicon of college football coaches: Roster management. They could bring in more than 25 new players, but they had to still stay at the 85-player scholarship limit.

As recruiting expert Tom Luginbill said on his Twitter account Thursday, there’s only one reason players can enter the portal after one window closes (which the most recent one did on April 30) and the next one opens: “This is where the reality of roster management hits. If a school or a coaching staff decides they are, in essence, going to cut a player — meaning, they are not renewing his (financial) aid — that is the only way for a player to jump into the transfer portal outside of the transfer portal windows.”

Harsh. But, a reality set into motion by the rules generally put into place to benefit a players right to choose where to play, and a player’s right to profit from his NIL.

Now, it’s not clear if that’s what happened here with any or all of these players at Penn State. Maybe some entered the portal during the window and the process took longer than expected for their names to appear. Maybe that happens. But it’s just as possible this is the staff’s first attempt to get in line with the 85-scholarship limit as the season nears and the 2024 roster takes shape

In any regard, it’s both unfortunate and disappointing for London Montgomery, who had all the talent necessary to compete for a major role at Penn State until an injury happened at exactly the wrong time and threw the entire plan out of whack. Now, his goal will be to live out that dream somewhere else.