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The Big Ten Preview: At Penn State, Bill O’Brien thriving on quality over quantity

Christian Hackenberg (No. 1) is one example of how Bill O'Brien can still recruit despite crippling sanctions. Photo: USA Today Sports

Christian Hackenberg's recruitment is already being thought of as one of the most important recruitments in the history of Penn State's football program. And he has yet to participate in a single practice with the Nittany Lions.

Once the weight of a solid steel hammer was dropped on the face of Penn State's football program last summer — four years of sanctions including a lengthy postseason ban and sever reduction in available scholarships and more — many were quick to write off the program in the continued fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, one that had been said to be covered up by Penn State officials for fear of tarnishing the football program and school by a damning report commissioner by former FBI director Louis Freeh. The NCAA accepted the Freeh Report at face value, using it to justify their actions taken against a university that was believed to place an alarming football culture above the safety of children. First year head coach Bill O'Brien may or may not have seen any of this coming just months ago when he accepted a job offer to take over the program. We may never know for sure. What we do know, though, is that O'Brien has embraced the challenge of leading a program through the metaphorical rubble and has found a way to move forward with his football program in the often dirty and challenging recruiting battle grounds.

With ten fewer scholarships to offer on a yearly basis now through the Class of 2016, O'Brien and his staff must choose wisely with their recruits. The troubling times at Penn State may sway some good talent elsewhere more often than not, but that has not stopped O'Brien from hauling in some players who seem to embrace the challenge and atmosphere at Penn State.

O'Brien's recruiting strategy is one we have explored before. In brief, O'Brien wants to keep the top talent in Pennsylvania close to home, improve recruiting performance in bordering states such as Ohio and move Penn State recruiting more in to the south. Having now put together two separate recruiting classes, one on an extremely limited calendar in 2012 and one full class in 2013, we are already seeing some of those strategies paying off.

Everything about Penn State right now has been fueled by embracing a bit of a youth movement on the field. Of course, much of that youth movement was accelerated out of need. Last summer saw Penn State lose their starting running back, Silas Redd (USC), and leading receiver, Justin Brown (Oklahoma) thanks in part to a free transfer option allowed by the NCAA. That eventually led O'Brien to rely more on receiver Allen Robinson — led the Big Ten in receiving with over 1,000 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns — and running backs Bill Belton and Zack Zwinak (from third string to 1,000 yard rusher). Under O'Brien's offensive game plan the tight ends emerged everywhere you seemed to look at Penn State, including freshmen Kyle Carter and Jesse James. On defense Penn State had freshman defensive lineman Deion Barnes lead the team in sacks and tackles for loss on his way to earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.

Deion Barnes (No. 18) was one of the Big Ten's best freshmen in 2012. Photo: USA Today Sports

And hopes are high for some of the newer members of the program for the fall. Sophomore Deion Barnes is coming off a Big Ten Freshman of the Year season after leading Penn State in sacks and tackles for a loss. Linebacker U will see redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman step right in to the 4-3 defensive packages and track down ball carriers after a solid spring. Running back Akeel Lynch also had a strong showing in the spring's Blue White Game and he could become more of an asset to the running game to help take some of the pressure off Zwinak. The tight ends will continue to develop and could add some depth with the addition of freshman stud tight end Adam Breneman, who enrolled in January but suffered a season ending ACL injury last fall in high school. With the position looking to be pretty deep in 2013, a redshirt option may not be out of the question but it appears as though Breneman will be available in some sort of rotation at some point.

Hackenberg, one of the top-rated quarterbacks in the country, could also be a fixture in the offense right out of the gate. With McGloin having moved on to the NFL and sophomore Steven Bench transferring to South Florida, the competition is between Hackenberg and talented JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson. Hackenberg has fans the most excited it would seem and he is likely the quarterback of the future if not in 2013. After witnessing what O'Brien was able to do with McGloin, expectations should be high to see what the coach who once barked with Tom Brady can do with a blue-chip passer. Oh, and by the way, Penn State has already received a verbal from a four-star pro-style quarterback (Michael O'Connor) out of Florida for the Class of 2014.

What we see here is O'Brien finding a way to add quality depth at key skill positions that he can make the most use out of. It is no secret that O'Brien has an offensive mindset, so focusing on the players he can utilize to execute his schemes is key. The concern though is whether or not O'Brien focuses on more of the meat and potatoes of the roster enough to ensure those skill players will have a chance to thrive. It is a fair and legitimate question, because as any football fan will tell you, if you do not have an offensive line blocking for the quarterback or running back, then plays will just never develop.

Considering offensive line has been one of the more consistent weak spots on the team over the years — they have gotten pushed around by the likes of Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa more often than some would like to see — the importance of recruiting in this area should not go overlooked. Penn State has added five offensive linemen through recruiting in 2012 and 213 and will move one tight end, Gary Gilliam, over to the line this season and the addition of former Mack Brown assistant at Texas Mac McWhorter along with a new strength and conditioning program is taking some time to get Penn State caught up in the trenches.

O'Brien has also embraced the walk-on options, which he refers to as run-ons.

"We don't call them walk-ons anymore, we call them run-ons," O'Brien said last fall. "They're guys who have improved so much in their time here at Penn State."

"These guys don't walk, they run on the field, they sprint on the field, they bust their butts on the field.''

We may not be ready to see any of these supposed run-ons become Penn State's version of Rudy any time soon, but it has helped build a program hat looks to restore pride and come together in a unique way that may not have been there before. The players at Penn State in 2012 were among the most united players any team has probably had in their respective program's history. Say what you will about what happened at Penn State, but last year's team was as admirable as any team I have watched since following this sport. Everybody came together, be it senior or freshman, four star recruit or walk-on.

And this is precisely the mentality O'Brien has had his players buy in to in a short period of time. There are reasons Penn State goes for it on fourth down more often than most. One is because, quite frankly, they have nothing to lose on the field in the short term. Wins are still vital to the program through these next few years, but in the grand scheme of things they are merely an afterthought. Second, is because O'Brien wants to sell a message to everyone that if you come to Penn State, you're going to take risks and play hard.

How Penn State does over the next couple of years is anybody's guess. Can O'Brien continue selling the same messages to recruits and his team, or is here an expiration date on those pitches? Recruiting will start to become easier for O'Brien as they work through another year on the postseason ban and scholarship restrictions, but O'Brien recently had his contract amended so there is confidence he will be in State College through 2016. If he can do with recruiting what he has been doing so far, who wouldn't want to see what he can do with a full arsenal of scholarships?

Kevin McGuire is the host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

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Kevin McGuire

About Kevin McGuire

Managing editor of Crystal Ball Run and contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. College Football Hall of Fame voter. Also managing Bloguin's NittanyLionsDen.com and Macho-Row.com.

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