The Penn State coaching staff has built relationships with high school coaches and players in Metro Detroit, a reason the Nittany Lions now have a pipeline into the state of Michigan.
First, Penn State head coach James Franklin and his staff — which includes co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Tim Banks, a Detroit native — brought in standout cornerback and return man Donovan Johnson from Detroit Cass Tech as part of its 2017 recruiting class. Penn State then added West Bloomfield linebacker Lance Dixon in its 2019 class.
Then, Oak Park safety Enzo Jennings and East Kentwood defensive end Bryce Mostella followed Johnson and Dixon to Happy Valley following their senior seasons in 2019.
Banks – who played his high school ball for James Reynolds and Dale Harvel at Detroit King before helping Central Michigan win a Mid-American Conference championship in 1994 — has been better than ever in getting commitments from the top recruits in the state of Michigan for the 2021 class.
First, Detroit King four-star safety Jaylen Reed committed to Penn State on April 9. Reed had received 33 offers, including Oregon, Georgia, Florida and several other national powers.
Reed has a nose for the football due to his speed, experience and physicality. He got in on 10 tackles while forcing a fumble in a state championship win over Muskegon in 2018, then made 11 tackles in a state title game loss to Muskegon Mona Shores this past fall.
“The reason why I chose Penn State was the family atmosphere and the school overall, Reed said. "It’s a great school academically, great football program, just a great way to set you up for life. I have great relationships with most of the players, have a good chance to play early and I can showcase my talent against big-time schools like Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
“They have great coaches, a great support system, great fans. I got really close to Coach Franklin and Coach Banks and my guy Coach (co-defensive coordinator Brent) Pry.”
Then, the King twins, Kalen (cornerback) and Kobe (linebacker), from Detroit Cass Tech announced they were headed for Penn State the following day. Kalen was highly recruited by Michigan with defensive coordinator Don Brown and head coach Jim Harbaugh attending Cass Tech’s basketball games to show their support.
Kalen King is ranked No. 9 on The News' Top 50 list for 2021 players in the state with Reed at No. 10 and Kobe King, No. 14.
“I have a great relationship with the coaches — me and my brother both do — and it just feels like home to us,” Kobe King said. “Coach Franklin is a great man. He’s always there to reach out and talk to him about anything, and Coach Pry is wonderful; we connect because we both wrestled in high school.
“Coach Banks is a cool dude. We can talk about things other than just football. Coach Banks is from Detroit, so we can really relate. He’s my guy.”
Penn State has more verbal commitments (three) among the top 15 so far than Michigan (two) and Michigan State (zero) combined.
Banks knows the talent level in the state of Michigan is high, having played at King. He got his feet wet while coaching at Ferris State (1997-98), then had stops at Bowling Green, Memphis and Maryland before moving on to work at his alma mater at CMU under Butch Jones, where he was defensive coordinator from 2007-09. He followed Jones to Cincinnati after the Chippewas’ MAC championship team which finished in the Top 25 in 2009.
Banks went on to become defensive coordinator at Illinois from 2012-15 before helping the Nittany Lions win the Big Ten championship in his first year as co-defensive coordinator in 2016.
“Growing up in the area, I have a deep appreciation for the type of kids that come from those programs and I have a great deal of respect for the coaches in the area," Banks said. "There’s a lot of great coaches that have been there for a long time and some of the younger coaches who have just got started have done some great things in a short amount of time.
“I know when I get a kid, when we’re fortunate enough to get a young man from the state of Michigan we know we’re getting a guy who is prepared, and to me hard work, dedication and toughness, all of those things are synonymous with players from that area.”
Being able to attract the first player, Donovan Johnson, has been a key. Johnson has appeared in 14 games over two seasons.
“I think the No. 1 thing is that the guys that are there are having good experiences, which makes it a lot easier to share those experiences with the next guys," Banks said, "but ultimately I think when you’re dealing with a place particularly like Penn State, I think those guys understand the value that it presents for them, not only on the field but off the field, and I think them being able to articulate that to the next guys coming up is always a good thing."
Penn State is 56-23 in six seasons under Franklin, including three top-10 finishes, and is 42-11 since Banks' arrival.
“I think it’s obviously a tribute to Coach Franklin and the program that he’s established here, but I think he’ll be the first to tell you it starts with people,” Banks said. “I feel we have a tremendous staff here. A lot of guys talk about family and family atmosphere and we truly embody that. The coaches are extremely close, extremely close with our players and I think you can see that in the way in which we play.”
Banks always has valued relationships, both as a player and now as a coach, showing the importance it plays both on and off the field.
“To me it’s everything, the relationship piece that we built along each other," Banks said, "and then when a kid sees it, I think really it’s one of the things that has helped us set ourselves apart from maybe some of the other programs in the country."
Penn State remains in the running for several other elite players from the state, including Clarkston four-star lineman Rocco Spindler (No. 1), Belleville four-star lineman Damon Payne (No. 2), Oak Park four-star lineman Rayshaun Benny (No. 5), Belleville linebacker Jamari Buddin (No. 7), and East Lansing receiver Andrel Anthony Jr. (No. 12).
“The guys who have committed to Penn State from Michigan are really striving to get me to go to Penn State with them,” Spindler said. “Penn State develops their guys. The coaches can be your friends off the field, but on the field it’s go-time even though there’s a lot of respect between the players and coaches, maybe that’s why a lot of guys really want to go there, just because of the respect.
“They don’t just see you as a number, they see you as a person and they truly care about your family, they want you to get your degree and live happily and go to the NFL and if that doesn’t work out, you have that degree to lean on and they’ll always be there to help you out.”
Penn State appears to be the favorite for Buddin, according to 247Sports Crystal Ball predictions. He is expected to make his decision in July, with Michigan and Michigan State also high on his list.
Banks, 48, has dreams of winning a national championship and one day becoming a head coach. Street & Smith’s preseason college football publication has Penn State playing in the College Football Playoffs this season and Athlon Sports has Penn State ranked No. 5 nationally.
“I played for Coach (Herb) Deromedi for three years and then Dick Flynn for one (at Central Michigan)," Banks said. "Obviously I was fortunate enough to go back there and coach at Central; I have four championship rings from Central, so it was a great time, not only as a player, but a coach. I feel extremely blessed. I really do, having the chance to play for two Hall of Fame coaches at Martin Luther King High School, playing for James Reynolds and then the late Dale Harvel.
“Both of those guys really set for the foundation for who I am today as a coach, and obviously playing for a Hall of Fame Coach in Herb Deromedi, it was a great situation to be in as a football player. I had no idea of the impact that any of those guys would have on me, but looking back it helped me a lot when I got into coaching profession in terms of work ethic, competing and just the overall love of the game. Hopefully, I will get an opportunity to take one more step in my career before this thing is all said and done.”