From the first day he took the job, James Franklin placed a premium on reestablishing Penn State’s recruiting presence in the Pittsburgh area.
He and his staff have signed four high-level prospects from in and around the city in their first four classes. Pittsburgh Central Catholic, in particular, is the alma mater to two coaches and two players on the current roster.
Joe Moorhead and Matt Limegrover grew up in the same Steel City suburb. In a stroke of fate, Moorhead’s dad served as Limegrover’s first football coach, quickly finding a spot for him on his offensive line. Of course, one of the first recruits Limegrover got in touch with after being hired was a fellow Viking — four-star guard C.J. Thorpe.
Thorpe’s father, Chris, played linebacker and halfback for the Nittany Lions from 1985-88, overlapping his last two seasons with cornerbacks coach Terry Smith.
Smith coached Gateway High School to 101 wins in his hometown of Monroeville, Pa., before taking the job in State College in 2014. His stepson, Justin King, needs no introduction among Penn State fans. The former five-star helped the Nittany Lions to the 2006 Orange Bowl as a freshman, playing significant roles in all three phases of the game. Franklin hired him as an assistant recruiting coordinator in May.
Thorpe, an Under Armour All-American, was considered the nation’s sixth-best guard in the 2017 recruiting class, holding additional scholarship tenders from Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, and the supremely selective Stanford, which only offered three other interior linemen that cycle.
Redshirt sophomore safety John Petrishen, who also excelled for head coach Terry Totten at Central Catholic, knew Penn State needed to land his former teammate.
“Ever since I got here, coach Franklin and everybody has tried to get me to get other guys from PCC here,” Petrishen said. “It’s fun to have C.J. here now. Coach Moorhead, he actually grew up not too far from me.”
Thorpe (No. 61) showcased his shear strength in the popular Lions Den drill early in training camp, overpowering equally massive true freshman defensive tackle Fred Hansard at the point of attack.
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Thorpe was a main contributor on the 2015 PIAA state championship team as a junior before being named a captain the following year. The school captured two other state titles in 2004 and 2007. Petrishen described the 6-foot-3, 314-pound Thorpe’s aggressive style of play at media day.
“Oh, he’s really physical. And he was like that since the day I started playing with him. I knew he was gonna carry that chip on his shoulder here,” Petrishen said. “Sometimes he takes it to the echo of the whistle, even past that. He gets in defenders heads a lot. Some people get rubbed the wrong way by that, but that’s just the nature of the beast. That’s the way he’ll play forever.”
Thorpe plans to major in either history or political science and wants to pursue law after earning his undergrad degree. There’s no doubt he’s a future multi-year starter for Limegrover at guard, but with the ample depth Penn State’s built up at the position and his summer arrival, chances are good he’ll redshirt this fall.
After taking that route himself in 2015, Petrishen sat out last fall due to an unspecified season-ending injury. Now back at full health, he should contribute on special teams in some capacity before seeing time with the safeties down the road.
On top of Thorpe and Petrishen, Penn State has nabbed Pittsburgh area commitments from five-star running back Miles Sanders and four-star offensive tackle Sterling Jenkins under Franklin. Sanders played his scholastic ball for Woodland Hills, where Rob Gronkowski got his start, while the towering 6-foot-8 Jenkins attended Baldwin High just down the road.
The Nittany Lions are hoping their renewed recruiting emphasis on the region will pay dividends with additional Central Catholic, or WPIAL products in general, picking black shoes and basic blues over the competition.
“First of all, I wish there were more coming,” Sanders said. “It’s been good having a lot of people from my area come down here to play ball.”