Julian Fleming and Penn State’s other headline transfers know they have much to prove

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Inside Penn State’s Holuba Hall after practice Tuesday night, Julian Fleming didn’t even need to wait for the end of the question to pinpoint what has slowed down his college career.

“Injuries,” Fleming said Tuesday during his first meeting with reporters since enrolling in January. “There’s been a lot and they’ve definitely worn on me, but there’s no growth without adversity.”

He was once a five-star wide receiver prospect from Catawissa, Pa., who was atop Penn State’s recruiting wish list. Now he’s an Ohio State graduate looking for a fresh start and finally wearing blue and white. The prized signee of Penn State’s transfer portal haul this winter is still hoping the best moments of his playing career are ahead.

“Right now I’m healthy and I’m happy about it,” Fleming said.

Entering his fifth college season, Fleming said he’s on track to make it through the entire spring healthy for the first time. His career has been marred by injuries, including procedures on both shoulders after he dealt with frequent dislocations. The injuries led to weeks and months of frustration. As Ohio State’s receiving corps kept reloading and getting stronger, Fleming struggled to stay on the field. He repeated the saying that “the best ability is availability,” one he’s taken to heart after not being able to become the type of player he still believes he can be when healthy.

But Fleming is here for a reason, and it’s abundantly clear to all involved. He has the chance to get right, stay healthy and get to the NFL. The Nittany Lions, desperately in need of a healthy and productive receiving corps, need him to become a key contributor. It’s the perfect arrangement, even if Fleming wasn’t so sure back in November and December whether this much-anticipated reunion between him and James Franklin would even materialize.

“It was a 50-50 shot between going (to the NFL) and transferring,” Fleming said. “I just felt like I still needed one more year to really prove to myself who I am and to prove to other people who I am. That’s why I was really excited to come here.”

When Fleming visited campus before committing, he met with quarterback Drew Allar and offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki. Fleming said together they went over some schemes and plays. Allar outlined for him where he expects the wide receiver to fit in and what his expectations are for him, Fleming said.

While Fleming didn’t want to dive into specifics of what Allar told him or what he was told his role could be, he has enjoyed experiencing what otherwise would have gone down as one of the biggest what-ifs of the Franklin era. Fans have long imagined what would happen had Fleming, the top receiver in the 2020 recruiting cycle, had committed to the school less than 90 minutes from his hometown.

Fleming knows this and even heard the Beaver Stadium crowd chant specifically against him during the Buckeyes’ trips to State College. He laughs about it now, optimistic that the same crowd will be behind him if this season turns out how he hopes.

“It’s gonna be nostalgic to say the least,” Fleming said. “I’ve been able to see the atmosphere, the most amazing in college football, and I’ve been able to see it from the opposite end. Being able to be on the same end of it this year is going to be a great feeling.”

Teammates and coaches have consistently said that Fleming has earned respect this offseason by coming in, putting his head down and working. He has embraced his new teammates, especially his quarterback, and has enjoyed having his family attend practices. He even recently received a text message from Micah Parsons — who was once instrumental in the effort to recruit Fleming out of high school.

Parsons’ text is one that could’ve been sent from just about any Penn State fan.

“He said, ‘Happy to have you home,’” Fleming recalled with a smile.

Other takeaways from Penn State’s weekly media session, which spotlighted a trio of transfers.

Rucci’s spring gains

Offensive tackle Nolan Rucci played in Wisconsin’s bowl game on Jan. 1 and was enrolled in class at Penn State a week later. It’s been a homecoming of sorts for the five-star recruit out of Warwick High School who signed with the Badgers over the Nittany Lions in December of 2020. What once was one of Penn State’s biggest recruiting misses — his parents were both standout athletes at Penn State and have long held football season tickets — is now all in the past.

“At that time, there were just a few more things on the pros and cons sheet that Wisconsin outbalanced, and I really enjoyed my three years at Wisconsin,” Rucci said. “I love the guys there, the staff. But, at that point I felt it was a great opportunity for me to move on and have some greener pastures and a better opportunity to get on the field.”

Rucci’s parents, including his father Todd, who also played on the offensive line at Penn State, have been at practices this spring. Rucci even returned home two weekends ago and was breaking down practice film with his dad. What they’re breaking down is a player who despite primarily being a backup left tackle at Wisconsin has worked at both tackle spots this spring. Penn State is without projected starting left tackle Drew Shelton this spring, and while no starters will be declared until closer to the season, Rucci will most likely find himself in a preseason competition at right tackle with redshirt freshman Anthony Donkoh, among others.

“I think a really good thing (offensive line coach Phil Trautwein) did was have me work my way up from the bottom of the roster and pay respects to those guys who have been in the room,” Rucci said. “I know how I would feel obviously if there was somebody who came in and automatically started over me, so just being able to work from the bottom and get those reps and the time in the film room and get with the guys has been a really great learning opportunity.”

Making the flip from the left side to the right has come with some natural challenges, Rucci said. After enrolling at 300 pounds and getting up to 315 by the start of spring practice, he said he’s been trying to get as many reps as possible outside of practice to make sure that right tackle feels natural and that he’s moving well with his weight gains. Rucci, listed at 6-8, said he’d like to be 320 pounds before the season starts. He said that goal should be realistic after how much weight he’s added in the past three months.

Kimber already making his presence felt

Cornerback Jalen Kimber, who started his collegiate career at Georgia before transferring to Florida, has a relationship with defensive recruiting coordinator and cornerbacks coach Terry Smith that dates back to Kimber’s high school days. Kimber said thanks but no thanks to Smith and Penn State the first time around, and he connected with Smith again when he hit the transfer portal the first time before picking the Gators.

The third time was indeed the charm as Kimber searched for a team this winter that could help launch him into the NFL. He connected with Smith and knew Penn State’s track record of getting cornerbacks to the pros would be hard to turn down.

“I wanted to go to a winning environment, a winning culture,” Kimber said. “They already had a culture established here, so I just felt Penn State was the best fit for me, honestly.”

Kimber made it clear during his commitment post that he only plans to be here for one season, but the senior does have an additional year of eligibility remaining should he want or need to stick around for 2025. Kimber said if his NFL Draft stock is not in a strong enough position next winter, he’d consider returning for the extra year.

Teammates have said this spring that Kimber, the most experienced corner on the roster, has already become a leader at the position. With Kalen King, Johnny Dixon and Daequan Hardy all preparing for the draft, Smith’s depth chart got young in a hurry. It’s also one of the most intriguing position groups on the team.

Penn State added sophomore A.J. Harris, who like Kimber started his career at Georgia. The two have bonded over that familiar start, Kimber said. Franklin said Tuesday night that the staff believes Harris could play all five positions in the secondary (cornerback, nickel, safety).

“He’s super aggressive. Super confident,” Franklin said. “(He’s) playing really well right now. He’s a physical, physical corner.”

Both cornerback spots and the nickel are wide open. Kimber said he has mostly worked at the outside cornerback position this spring. Between Kimber, Harris, Cam Miller, Zion Tracy, Elliot Washington II, Audavion Collins and others, there’s no shortage of options.

“I’ve seen a lot of football,” Kimber said. “I’ve been in a few different playbooks. Just taking my experience and helping them and telling them what not to do and what to do, that’s really how I think I’m able to help.”

(Photo: Adam Cairns / Columbus Dispatch / USA Today)

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