With a location that measures almost exactly half of the 5 1/2-hour distance between Columbus and State College, Pa., Pittsburgh feels like the perfect middle ground for a recruiting rivalry between two of the most prestigious football programs in the Big Ten.
A number of factors in the coming years will dictate whether such a competition even materializes, but the Steel City is doing its part in the class of 2015. Pittsburgh Baldwin happens to be home to prized offensive lineman Sterling Jenkins, the sixth-ranked tackle in the country who has narrowed his college search down to Ohio State and Penn State.
What makes Jenkins so coveted by a host of the top schools in the country? Looking up at him provides the first clue. The soon-to-be high school senior measures in at 6-8, 305 pounds and could still be growing. But Jenkins complements his size with a maturity not often seen in high school students, making him a natural fit at a position that requires a cerebral nature.
"He likes to look at things from an in-depth perspective," Baldwin coach Pete Wagner told BuckeyeSports.com. "His favorite subjects are English and writing, and that says a whole lot about him. He's an individual who loves to compete, whether it's a workout in the offseason or pushing himself on the field. I think that would be another important quality about him."
Baldwin's coaches first started to recognize what type of athlete they had on their hands during Jenkins' sophomore year of high school. In addition to his massive size, he was picking up on things faster than they'd seen out of a player his age. Once his physical ability and coordination caught up with his mind, he was on another level.
"We talked internally as coaches during his sophomore year when he was doing things in the weight room and on the field and in practice," Wagner said. "You can always tell him to step this way or take this angle. There's nothing he can't do physically. It was always just a matter of maturing on the field and gaining some experience playing the game, and that's what he's in the process of doing right now. It's just a matter of continuing to take the next step."
With a decision likely coming in May or June, Jenkins is trying to wrap up his visits to both of his favored schools before bringing his recruitment to a close. He was in Columbus on April 11, the day before Ohio State's spring game, and was able to take in a practice before chatting with offensive line coach Ed Warinner.
Afterwards, he dispelled the notion that his visit was a mere formality on the road to a Penn State commitment and pointed to Ohio State as a place where he could see himself playing.
"It was interesting because I know there are a lot of people that don't think I like Ohio State, but I respect those guys and like visiting," Jenkins told Scout.com. "Before it was just a recruiting deal, and while it was a little bit of that this time, it was more of a realistic thing with them practicing and gearing up. That was really interesting."
One day later he was in Happy Valley for Penn State's spring game. Jenkins said that first-year head coach James Franklin used the program's shortcomings as a sales pitch for future recruits.
"I know a lot of people say he's just talking himself up and can't back it up, but he made it apparent he knew the situation," Jenkins said. "He was talking about there being holes in the depth chart. I thought it was pretty cool to make that clear to the commits."
One other thing that Franklin has made clear is his goal of recruiting better than anyone else in the area. At his opening press conference in January, he laid out a vision for his program that involved identifying and signing the best players that the Keystone State has to offer.
"Our recruiting philosophy, we are going to dominate the state," he said at his introductory press conference. "We are going to dominate the state. We are going to dominate the region."
That threat held the promise of impending battles against Ohio State, which dipped into Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Virginia to sign players in 2014 alone. Penn State's dozen commits for the class of 2015 is a staggering number compared to that of Ohio State, but the two programs hadn't really locked horns in a true head-to-head battle until Jenkins cut his list to two.
Still, the four-star offensive lineman represents exactly the type of player that Penn State needs to get if it hopes to fulfill the hype generated by the early success on the recruiting trail.
"Sterling Jenkins is Pennsylvania's top-rated player, and James Franklin has said he wants to dominate the state," Scout.com recruiting analyst Greg Pickel told BuckeyeSports.com. "You can maybe do that without getting the top-rated player but you better get No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 if that's the case. I think if Urban Meyer can win that battle, it obviously puts a dent in James Franklin's ‘dominate the state' sales pitch. If James Franklin gets Jenkins, it bolsters his pitch."
Whether such matchups increase in numbers over the years remains to be seen. Penn State has to prove that it can win on the field and also show that it can recruit outside of its own backyard. Meyer hasn't charted a particularly aggressive course in the Mid-Atlantic this year, but he owns an enormous built-in advantage when it comes to recruiting thanks to his reputation and track record. Ultimately, recruiting experts are pointing at one player in particular who can either help assert Ohio State's dominance over the Nittany Lions or give Penn State fans a reason to believe.
"It's almost like a rivalry on the field where it doesn't become a rivalry until the other team wins," Scout.com recruiting analyst Brian Dohn told BuckeyeSports.com. "To me, this doesn't become a real recruiting rivalry until Penn State gets a kid who's not in their backyard who Ohio State wanted, and to me that's Sterling Jenkins. That's what I'm looking at and wondering how it's going to shake out."