In the end, Justin King chose the chance to help rebuild Penn State over the chance to help reload at Michigan.
King announced his choice during a press conference at Pittsburgh's Gateway High School on Monday evening. The top cornerback in the country and Rivals.com’s No. 9 player in the country overall found it too difficult to say no to Penn State, his home-state school and the team for which his step-father and coach Terry Smith played under Joe Paterno from 1988-91. While the Nittany Lions seem a long way from their glory days, in the end King wanted to not only play right away but also help return the program to glory.
"Michigan has a great winning tradition, and it came down to them and Penn State," King said. "But this gives me a great opportunity to rebuild a program just like we did here at Gateway. Two years ago we were 2-9, now we are 11-1. I've been going to the campus since I was in eighth grade and know the people there very well. They are good people and have always told me the truth."
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In heading to Happy Valley, King turned down Michigan, declining to join childhood friend Steve Breaston and the team with the inside track on yet another Big Ten title. He also did an about-face after weeks of listing Michigan at the top of his list. The momentum seemed to shift toward Happy Valley after King’s official visit Nov. 15, a visit his father and coach called “enlightening.” But Smith has always insisted that the decision would be King’s and King’s alone.
"My father had no impact on his deciusion," King said Monday while confirming that he is enrolling in January. "It was my decision, he only guided me. I made the decision two weeks ago before going to visit Penn State. After talking with my parents and recruiting adviser, I decided Penn State was best place for me."
Michigan appeared to lead this race for much of the process, with King citing his relationships with friends Ryan Mundy and Breaston as major reasons why. That, and a favorable depth chart – King would have been able to vie for a starting position at Michigan from the get-go – coupled with Penn State’s recent woes seemed to make Michigan an easy choice.
But ever since that visit to Penn State it looked more and more like King would become a Nittany Lion, and he did not seem worried about the prospect of Joe Paterno retiring while he was in school in State College.
"It doesn’t matter if he stays," King said of JoePa. "I feel confident that his successor will help carry on the tradition and nothing will change."
King said that while his main position will be defensive back, he has talked to coaches about playing some offense as well.
"I think I have a really good chance of playing as a freshman," King said. "Coach (Tom) Bradley played a tremendous role in my decision. He recruited me harder than any coach ever has. Just last week, I received 30 handwritten letters from him in one day."
Now all eyes will turn toward the nation's top prospect, Derrick Williams. A good friend of King's, Williams has also visited Happy Valley and there have been rumors that the pair has talked about playing together, along with three-star running back Lydell Sargeant and four-star wideout Nyan Boateng. Would King help recruit the other for the Nittany Lions?
"I'm not sure what they are doing, you'd have to talk to them," King said "But I know those guys very well and will continue to talk to them."