samphillippi

Sam Phillippi, 2016 Second-Team All Ivy, is one of the many current Penn standouts to hail from Southern California. Phillippi, along with defensive backs Riley and Connor O'Brien and quarterback Nick Robinson, all played at California powerhouse Jserra Catholic High School.

Photo: Ananya Chandra

With a pair of conference championships in Ray Priore’s first two seasons, it’s no secret that Penn football’s turnaround has been one for the history books.

And the secret ingredient to the Red and Blue’s sudden resurgence? The Quakers’ own California gold rush.

Year after year, Penn’s Southern California recruiting pipeline has grown larger and larger, and this coming season will be no exception. With 16 SoCal natives on their 2017 roster — as many as Penn has from any non-California state — the Quakers are locked and loaded with supreme talent from across the country as they embark on their three-peat attempt.

“It’s a hotbed for not only really good players, but also high academic kids, kids that can get into school and have a lot of talent,” said linebackers’ coach Jeff Smart, primarily responsible for recruiting the SoCal region. “We’ve had some success recruiting down there, and once you get a couple of guys and you start developing a little bit of a pipeline, people start to hear about UPenn and you build a pretty good amount of excitement down there.”

When juxtaposing the Ivy League with the football prestige of west coast schools from the Pac-12 and Mountain West Conference, it might seem like a tall order to coerce such high-level talent to forgo those opportunities in favor of heading thousands of miles away from their homes.

But at the end of the day, it’s what’s off the field that counts just as much as what’s on it in the minds of countless recruits, and the Red and Blue have seized full advantage.

“It’s a populated area and it’s got great football, and there’s a natural draw east for those great academic kids that want the academic presence of the Ivy League,” defensive coordinator Bob Benson said. “California is a key, key state, it’s highly populated with great football, and they must come east to find those academic schools, so it goes hand-in-hand.”

The academic prestige of the Ivy League has existed for centuries, but another factor contributing to Penn’s current plethora of SoCal talent comes in the drastically changing culture of football recruitment. 

A generation ago, coaches might have had to personally fly out to recruits’ high school games to evaluate talent or send a handwritten letter to express interest. But now, the rapid explosion of social media communication, combined with streamlined methods of sharing game film like Hudl and YouTube, has made the 2,700-mile barrier between Los Angeles and Philadelphia nearly obsolete.

“You can just really send a quick email to this coach, like the receivers’ coach at Penn, and next thing you know he’s coming to visit you, so social media has just opened up a bunch of doors,” wideout and Los Angeles native Christian Pearson said. “It’s a different culture, and that’s beautiful.”

The sheer number of Penn’s SoCal natives — five more than any other Ivy has — is surely impressive, but the quality very well might be even more phenomenal than the quantity. Even with the losses of Alek Torgersen to graduation and Mason Williams to Duke, the list of returning Cali-born stars goes on and on.

Safety Sam Philippi, punter Hunter Kelley, Pearson and defensive end Louis Vecchio give Penn a staggering four returning All-Ivy selections all hailing from the SoCal area — more than Cornell (three), Columbia (three) and Brown (zero) have on their entire rosters born in any state.

“It’s hard to say [what separates Penn from the other Ivies in getting California kids], I think it definitely helps us,” Smart said. “I can’t speak for some of the other schools and how they divide up their recruiting resources. I know we’ve obviously put a priority on that area, and we have not just a bunch of players from southern California, but a bunch of really good players too.”

It’s no coincidence that so many of Penn’s players from the area are immediately ready to contribute. With the notorious amount of talent located in the Los Angeles and Orange County regions, California prospects routinely enter their collegiate careers having seen the likes of major Division I talent week in and week out.

“Yeah, I would definitely think that’s a factor [in adjusting to the college game],” Philippi said. “The speed of play I think is what goes up when you come to college football, and coming from there, that transition is a little bit easier. Going against so many guys that are D-I players, teams ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the country every year, it helps out at the college level.”

And when throwing such accomplished high school athletes from the same area in the same locker room, the smack talk is going to be through the roof. Even though all the Red and Blue players are united now with the common goal of that Ivy League ring, banter about the old days inevitably comes up with some California-on-California crime.

“Yeah, that [smack talk] is great, especially when Torg and even Hunter [Kelley] on the team now — I [and 2017 Penn grad Nick Whitton] played them in my high school’s [2012 division championship] in Angel Stadium, and they beat us, so I never got to hear the end of that, they’ll show us the rings,” Vecchio said. “But it’s nice to know that we all kind of came from a similar program and similar grind, but we put that all behind us and we’re all a team now.”

Of course, when it comes to inter-state chirping, all prior California rivalries are laid to rest.

“We’re always talking about it, all the Texas guys always say Texas football is better, all the Florida guys always say Florida football is better,” Philippi said. “But you know, number one league [the Trinity League, which produced five current Penn players] in the entire country, I think SoCal takes it.”

All locker room jokes aside, Penn’s SoCal veterans do play a major role in promoting a culture of keeping this pipeline going for years. With older players sharing their wisdom on football, school, travel and anything else to prospective players, the “Circle of Life” for the Quakers’ southern California talent has no signs of stopping any time soon.

“When I go back and visit my high school, kids are always asking me how Penn is, and I always tell them that I’ve had the most fun that I’ve ever had playing at Penn,” Philippi said. “It’s the best decision I’ve ever made, and hopefully those kids can see that the Penn experience is something not matched by any other school in the entire country.”

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