January 29, 2023

Don’t ask Dante Cephas’ high school coaches to pick just one play that showcases everything wide receiver meant to Penn Hills. There are too many moments to choose from.

There was the excavation route at a critical third descent where Cephas climbed the ladder to undo the first descent and five more meters. There is the tunnel screen in the third and short place in the WPIAL championship match when Cephas passed all defense. There was the game where he rose above two defenders to catch a touchdown.

But perhaps the best game of Cepha’s high school career was a pass.

“We passed jet sweeps to Daequan Hardy, and earlier in the game DaeDae scored from the same formation on that jet sweep,” said Steve Buches, Cephus offensive coordinator at Penn Hills outside Pittsburgh. “We were going to run a reverse pass and Dante would get reverse and throw it. … Well, I think the snap was late. The handover came too late. DaeDae’s switch to Dante was late and Dante has it on his hip, gets it back to his left hand and he threw for a touchdown. He dropped an absolute penny. It was the most incredible shot the way it all came together.”

Cephas’ body control turned heads at Penn Hills, and that’s one of the reasons the Kent State receiver became one of the most desirable players on the NCAA transfer portal this winter. In his last two seasons with the Golden Flashes, Cephas caught 130 passes for 1,984 yards and 12 touchdowns. He gave defensive coordinators fits as he passed defenders.

“I have no concerns that he will be a great player,” said a MAC defense coordinator on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak publicly about a player on the transfer portal. “At our level, the strongest receivers are the guys who are strong. You can just walk through people. … A big, strong, physical receiver like Dante Cephas will take advantage of these DBs.”

And then the coach chuckled, expressing an opinion likely to be shared by many in his conference.

“I’m very glad he left,” he added.

Cephas made a verbal commitment to Penn State on Jan. 15. Unlike Florida State transferee Malik McClain, he is not yet on campus and has therefore not been officially named to the Nittany Lions roster. He is expected to enroll later this year and have the opportunity to compete to become the team’s #1 receiver. He will help fill one of the team’s most pressing needs as lead receivers Parker Washington and Mitchell Tinsley head to the NFL.

Penn State parted ways with receiver coach Taylor Stubblefield the same day Cephas was signed. Eight days later, it announced the hiring of Virginia’s Marques Hagans to replace Stubblefield as receiver coach and offensive recruit coordinator. Cephas’ commitment – which becomes binding once he enrolls and signs paperwork – will serve as a sort of reunion with two of his Penn Hills teammates in Hardy, a defender, and running back tank Smith.

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Hardy played cornerback and wide receiver with Cephas during Penn Hills’ state title run in 2018. Penn State recruited Hardy as cornerback but offered him a scholarship so late in the process that he committed and signed his national letter of intent on the day of his offer on the signing day the next morning. Cephas appeared alongside Hardy in many of the same highlights but didn’t catch Penn State’s eye at the moment. He was a three-star recruit, ranked 47th in Pennsylvania in the 247Sports Composite.

“He had this Power 5 potential, but a lot of coaches were hesitant about him,” said Jon LeDonne, Cephas head coach at Penn Hills. “I don’t know what the concern was that he came out. He was an academic qualifier. He had the structure. He had the frame, but for some reason they hesitated. When he came to Kent State, he really matured — not just physically, but mentally.”

Buches thinks Power 5 teams probably thought Cephas, then about 170 pounds, was too skinny. He needed time in the weight room to become the 6-1, 186-pound transfer that had his selection of teams.

“It couldn’t have been his speed or athleticism, I know that. It couldn’t have been due to his ability to catch. It sure as hell wasn’t his toughness,” Buches said. “I’m glad Dante is getting a chance because that’s the kind of kid that would have otherwise slipped through the cracks because he was too skinny or teams were wondering if he could handle the pounding of a Power 5 conference .”

Buches, who played football at Pitt in the early 2000s, knew that when Cephas entered the transfer portal, he must be interested in working again with his friends and former high school teammates at Penn State. Buches hoped Pitt, another Cephas finalist, would be the landing spot but realized Penn State made a lot of sense for both sides.

“Having Hardy and Tank Smith there, two guys that he’s very comfortable with, and of course having coach Terry Smith there and he’s a western PA guy really helps,” LeDonne said.

One of the reasons so many teams responded so strongly to Cephas this time around was because they saw what he was doing against Power 5 opponents. In the past two seasons, he has played six games against the likes of Iowa, Maryland, Oklahoma, Georgia, Washington and Texas A&M. In those games, he went for 100 yards twice (105 yards against Washington, 151 yards against Maryland). He also had four catches for 50 yards against Oklahoma.

Cephas missed three of Kent State’s last four games of 2022 with an injury. Had he remained healthy, he would have had a chance to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.

“He has all the professional skills,” said the opposing MAC coach. “He can run. He’s like 6-1, 190, and he can jump. He’s got incredible body control. He drives excellent distances. He’s a sure catcher. He’s a guy who I think has his best football this is where the tube comes down. It’s a huge hit for Penn State.”

It’s a reminder of the value of the transfer portal for a player like Cephas who has been preparing for such a leap for the past four years. If second quarterback Drew Allar is to live up to his five-star recruiting ranking, Penn State needs a player like Cephas to step up and offer an immediate option. He will have two years to see if his tortuous college career can get him into the NFL.

“I know Dante will attack that and he’ll enjoy it,” Buches said. “He will definitely accept this challenge.”

(Top Photo: Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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