If there is one thing we have learned about Bill O'Brien over the course of the last calendar year, it may be that he is a relentless and fearless leader. Now, with days to go the Big Ten's coach of the year is working on putting together a surprisingly decent recruiting class in his first full recruiting cycle, despite being faced head on with stiff scholarship reductions and a postseason ban.
As the Penn State community was just coming to grips with the tragic reality of the situation following the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal that resulted in the forced removal of Joe Paterno, the university president, athletic director and another administrator, the future looked bleak for Penn State. The hiring of O'Brien was far from a satisfactory hiring by many vocal Penn Staters, including former players perhaps still blinded by the entire situation. Quickly, O'Brien acted and started winning over the fans, players and alumni by telling it like he saw it. His honesty and belief that despite troubling times that Penn State could still thrive resonated and instilled confidence in his hiring as well.
We now know O'Brien turned out to be a pretty decent coach on the sidelines. He turned Matt McGloin in to one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He finally got Zach Zwinak to reach some of his hyped potential on the field and developed a number of young players in to key starters, including the Big Ten's top wide receiver in Allen Robinson. Penn State would love to have the first two games of the O'Brien Era back (losses to Ohio and Virginia) but even in defeat O'Brien found a way to lay a foundation for future success. By the end of the year Penn State was feeling good despite additional losses to Ohio State and Nebraska. An overtime victory against eventual Big Ten champion Wisconsin capped a wild season in storybook fashion. But as soon as Wisconsin's overtime field goal attempt was ruled no good, it was on to the next order of business for O'Brien and his staff.
The recruiting game for Penn State in 2013 is the most challenging in program history. Penn State is entering year two of a four-year postseason ban and is restricted to 15 scholarships for the Class of 2013. The sanctions issued by the NCAA last summer also allowed for any current Penn State player to transfer without having to sit out a season if they choose to move to another program. Silas Redd (USC), Justin Brown (Oklahoma), Rob Bolden (LSU) and Anthony Fera (Texas) were among the players who chose to take advantage of a free transfer before last season. Since the end of the regular season, Penn State players remaining on the roster are once again free to take up the NCAA's offer of a free transfer. The deadline to make that decision does not come until August, when Penn State opens up training camp for the 2013 season.
Fortunately for Penn State, to this point, the roster appears to be largely intact other than the impact of graduating players. Still, that is a lot of time to go for O'Brien and his staff to keep players from looking elsewhere. But with the roster likely to remain at least mostly unchanged the focus can shift to recruiting new players.
O'Brien's recruiting plan centers on two primary elements. The first is to regain a strong footing inside the state of Pennsylvania.
Penn State has always been able to recruit some quality talent from Pennsylvania, which is to be expected for the state's largest football program, but ever since joining the Big Ten in 1993 as a full-league member the presence of new rival programs such as Ohio State and Michigan as well as Wisconsin has been noticeable. The territory once dominated by Penn State was now not only threatened by the likes of traditional recruiting rivals from West Virginia, Syracuse and Rutgers but also the powerful Buckeyes, Wolverines and Badgers and more. Pittsburgh also strengthened their recruiting in western Pennsylvania as Joe Paterno got even more up in years. With Paterno also cutting back on recruiting trips Penn State's rivals picked up more ammunition. Some would say that issue was overblown and Paterno's assistants were more than capable of handling the extra duties. Regardless of whether or not it was an issue, that tune has changed.
O'Brien quickly went to work on the recruiting of one of the top tight ends in the country, perhaps the most important position in O'Brien's offense after quarterback. That prospect just happened to be a Pennsylvania recruit as well. Adam Breneman, a 6' 5" 227 tight end has been regarded as the key player to Penn State's Class of 2013, and he has handled the role quite well. Breneman has embraced his leadership role in the Class of 2013, speaking out about how much he likes the school, football program and O'Brien and interacting with fans on Twitter and more. Breneman committed to Penn State in early March 2012. When the NCAA handed down severe sanctions to Penn State there was plenty of reason for concern over the work in progress Class of 2013. Breneman's family quickly released a brief statement saying their son was evaluating the situation before commenting further about his commitment status. Penn State had already lost some recruits for the Class of 2012, and losing Breneman at that point could have been devastating on so many levels.
But O'Brien clearly had the ability to assure confidence in Breneman. He, along with talented Virginia quarterback recruit Christian Hackenberg, one of the top quarterbacks in the country, spent a day up in State College to meet with the coaching staff before confirming their status. Whatever was said to the two key players in Penn State's Class of 2013 worked. O'Brien's sales pitch for Penn State has never changed. He still believes in Paterno's grand experiment, a philosophy of molding players to succeed in the classroom and then the football field. He still believes in the lore of playing in one of the largest stadiums in the country, Beaver Stadium, against some of the top programs in the Big Ten such as Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska. Breneman enrolled in classes in early January and Hackenberg appears to be eager to send in his National Letter of Intent to Penn State next week. To date Penn State has five players committed to sign or already enrolled.
Getting Breneman to enroll early is a key to Penn State's recruiting tactics. Any player who was able to enroll in classes in January would not count against Penn State's Class of 2013, leaving 15 scholarships still available. Four other players who enrolled early joined Breneman, including one of the top junior college quarterback transfers, Tyler Ferguson.
Ferguson could step in to the program and compete for a starting job right away with Hackenberg and last year's quarterback recruit Steven Bench.
Bench's recruitment should not be overlooked though. While Hackenberg has already been tabbed the quarterback of the future and Ferguson has potential to play the transition role between McGloin and Hackenberg, Bench serves as the first move in O'Brien's second recruiting philosophy. That is to enter a recruiting trail to the south, a region ripe with talent.
We already see programs like Ohio State and Michigan moving south in search of recruits. The SEC has thrived largely on southern talent. The state of Florida has been a goldmine and the addition of Texas A&M opens the doors to the state of Texas even more so than before. If the Big Ten, and Penn State, are going to be able to catch up and compete on the same level with the SEC and Big 12, O'Brien knows it is important to start traveling south and luring some talent up north. Bench, a Georgia native, may have been the first part of the process to open up new pipelines for recruiting efforts. Having a coaching staff familiar with the south certainly helps as well.
Since 2004 Penn State has successfully recruited four players from your typical SEC territory (not including a couple of players from Texas). One of them was a legacy football player, linebacker Michael Mauti. Penn State currently has three-star commitments to players from Florida, Alabama and Georgia in the Class of 2013. For a program that traditionally has rarely ventured past Virginia successfully, that is a nice start.
The sanctions certainly still hurt Penn State, make no mistake about it. Penn State must focus on quality over quantity for the next few seasons. In the meantime Ohio State and Michigan will continue to be able to put together top-notch classes. Rutgers and Maryland will attempt to take advantage of the slight edge while they still can. When all is behind them, Penn State will likely have some catching up to do. The good news is the work will start getting a little bit easier as each day passes by. Each day brings us one day closer to when Penn State can use the sales pitch for bowl games. The Class of 2013 may still have a shot to play in one bowl game, and perhaps two if they red shirt this season.
In the meantime, O'Brien will also embrace the "run-ons," a term he prefers to use for non-scholarship players because walking on just sounds lazy. Penn State currently has 11 preferred walk-ons lined up and ready to commit to the Nittany Lions, including one of the more recent additions of Gregg Garrity. His father, Gregg Garrity Sr., is a former Penn State player most famously remembered by fans for his leaping catch against Georgia in the 1983 Sugar Bowl for the national championship. For the younger Garrity running on at Penn State is an opportunity to follow in his father's footsteps. His commitment also ensures that while the eras have changed at Penn State, the Penn State football family still means something.