Penn State football: James Franklin targeting two cornerbacks in the transfer portal

Ole Miss took advantage of Penn State's secondary in the Peach Bowl and to rectify the issue, James Franklin is turning to the transfer portal. Two former five-star corners have visited Happy Valley this week.
Georgia cornerback A.J. Harris
Georgia cornerback A.J. Harris / Brandon Sloter/GettyImages

When multiple key contributors, including Penn State’s top two cornerbacks, opted out of the Peach Bowl, the contest changed from the culmination of the 2023 season to a preview of the 2024 roster. Well, the 38-25 loss to Ole Miss revealed issues that James Franklin and the Penn State coaching staff had to address before taking the field in 2024, and it looks like they are. 

The glaringly obvious problem was the passing game, on both sides of the ball. Penn State couldn’t throw the ball all season, and suddenly, without Kalen King and Johnny Dixon in the secondary, the No. 1 defense in the country was no match for Jaxson Dart and Lane Kiffin’s downfield passing attack. 

So, after allowing 394 passing yards in the season finale, Franklin has gone after two talented cornerbacks in the transfer portal. On Wednesday and Thursday, the Nittany Lions hosted former Georgia five-star cornerback A.J. Harris on a visit, and Friday, former UNC and Texas A&M cornerback Tony Grimes was in Happy Valley. 

Harris played sparingly as a freshman at Georgia with only 89 total snaps but has three years of eligibility remaining and is ranked as one of the top cornerbacks in the portal. 247 Sports has predicted that he will commit to Penn State. 

Grimes was pursued by Franklin back in 2020 when he was a high school five-star, but instead the Virginia Beach native opted for UNC. After three years in Chapel Hill, Grimes transferred to Texas A&M, but he suffered a lower-body injury and missed the entire 2023 season. 

In the 2022 season, his last at UNC, Grimes allowed 23 catches on 45 targets with three touchdowns, three PBUs, and no interceptions. He played 697 snaps and made 34 tackles including nine stops in the run game. 

Harris has the better chance of replacing Joey Porter Jr. and Kalen King as the true lockdown No. 1 corner, but Grimes is certainly an upgrade over what is currently on the roster. 

Only adding one of the two former five-star defensive backs may not be enough for new DC Tom Allen to recreate the success that Manny Diaz had on the defensive side of the football in 2023. However, not locking down a commitment from either would be disastrous. Ole Miss made that crystal clear in the Peach Bowl. 

Cam Miller was the primary victim. The sophomore cornerback was targetted 12 times and allowed seven catches for 120 yards and only had one pass breakup. Miller played 326 snaps this season, but without major improvement, will not be ready to take over a starting role in 2024. Daequan Hardy, who is headed to the NFL played the other corner spot in Atlanta and didn’t fare much better. 

Hardy allowed six catches on eight targets for 117 yards and a touchdown. He didn’t have a single pass-breakup, but was still a better option than other young cornerbacks like Zion Tracy who gave up three catches for 79 yards in his first real action of the season. 

The secondary wasn’t helped by interim defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter’s overly aggressive style that left them on islands a few too many times, but in Poindexter's defense, the Nittany Lions thrived on zero blitzes in the regular season with Dixon and King in man-to-man coverage. 

To address the offensive ineptitude, Franklin has already gotten a commitment from former Ohio State wide receiver Julian Fleming. If Harris and Grimes join the fold, then Penn State will have caught up with the rest of the country that has embraced the transfer portal as a means to solve problems and fill holes on the roster. 

Franklin had been reluctant to do so in the past, but this offseason he could be writing the next chapter of his tenure at Penn State, and in a twist, this one could feature a win or two over the elite programs in the Big Ten.