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Penn football sophomore defensive lineman David Ryslik played both offense and defense last season after transferring from UConn following his freshman season in 2015.

Credit: Chase Sutton

There are many benefits that a prominent college football program can offer to recruits that Penn simply can’t. Crowd numbers pushing six digits week in and week out. Facing the top competition in the nation every time one steps on the field. The chance to be a household name before even being of legal drinking age.

But Penn football has an edge that few college football teams can match. One doesn’t commit to Penn for just football — he does it for the betterment of the rest of his life. And that’s a trend that more and more high-level recruits seem to be understanding.

Entering the 2018 season, the Quakers have four players who were formerly on FBS rosters: quarterback Nick Robinson (Georgia), wide receiver Chaz Augustini (Tulane), and defensive linemen Cortez Alston (Georgia Tech) and David Ryslik (UConn). And though they all took different paths to Penn, they share one universal similarity. Even if it was tough to say goodbye to Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) football, and even if they had to either redshirt or take a year off altogether, they feel their lives are better off for it.

“After getting hurt [as a freshman at UConn in 2015], I ended up taking a year off, and I realized what coming to Penn could do for me and for my family the long run,” Ryslik said. “One of the big things that stuck when I was talking to coach Priore when I was a senior in high school was the whole, ‘It’s not about the next four years, it’s about the next 40 years of your life’ mantra. And no matter what happened, that was always kind of stuck in my head.”

While Penn football’s accomplishments in Ray Priore’s three-year tenure, including two conference titles and a 16-5 Ivy League record, have been noteworthy, the Quakers’ coaching staff is well aware of ways it can’t compete with FBS programs while on the recruiting trail. 

But when the Red and Blue’s on-the-field production is paired with top-10 nationwide academics, an elite alumni networking system, and the highest number of billionaire graduates of any university in the world, it’s a combination that can’t be beaten. And the roster’s impressive array of FBS transfers proves that more student-athletes are becoming aware of it.

“[Growing up] a bunch of my friends were always like, ‘Football this, football that, we gotta get it going.’ Obviously I love football, and that’s why I came here, to play still at a very high level,” Ryslik said. “But the thing that really applied to me the most is that the Ivy League is something where your eggs aren’t all in one basket. If you wanna keep playing sports, that’s something you can keep doing, and if you wanna go off into academia, that’s another thing you can keep doing. There are so many doors that can open coming to a place like this, that it was almost like a no-brainer.”

Ryslik’s reference about continuing to play sports doesn’t just refer to doing so in one’s college days. At a quickly increasing rate, the Ivy League is making an impact at the NFL level, with the eight schools combining to produce a conference-record 28 alumni in NFL training camps as of August 2018. 

Penn ranked second out of the Ivies with four products on the list, all of whom graduated in the past six years. The growing amount of hard evidence that Penn football alumni can make it to the next level only adds further incentive for highly talented athletes to head the Quakers’ way.

Credit: William Snow

Nick Robinson

“At the FBS level, there are some guys that end up getting drafted in the first round, but I would say there’s not much of a drop-off; the speed of the game is still the same, the schemes are the same, so it’s really not that big of a difference. Everybody has their opinions, but that’s my opinion, and I’ve seen both,” Robinson said. “[The growing number of Ivy players in the NFL] definitely was a factor … I think if you’re good enough, they’ll find out.”

Even if Penn’s crop of transfers all believe they made the right decisions, it doesn’t mean anything came easy for them. Besides the quality of competition — ”there are some cats out here who can really play,” Ryslik succinctly said — a far tougher academic workload, a new playbook to learn, and bonding with a new group of teammates all form even greater challenges.

But in Priore’s program, one important rule makes that transition easier. It doesn’t matter what one did before showing up; if one shows up ready to work, he’ll be embraced as part of the Penn football family.

“For like the first day, I was like, ‘I don’t know if these guys are gonna accept me, I don’t know if they’re gonna think I’m some state-school guy who doesn’t belong here.’ But I worked my butt off, showed my teammates the kind of guy I am, and it was a match from the jump,” Ryslik said. “It’s such an open and fun-loving group of guys out here; it meshed really well, and it seems like it all happened on purpose.”

When all is said and done, it’s unclear if any of these four players will go pro, or which ones will even see starters’ minutes this season.

But regardless of what happens once opening kickoff comes, the quartet has already won in one way — each has made a decision that he hopes will pay off long after his time strapping on the pads is over.

“It takes a different kind of guy to turn down a full four-year scholarship to step out of his comfort zone and challenge himself and try to reach new heights,” Ryslik said. 

“Coming here is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my entire life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”