The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local Sports

February 6, 2013

Penn State recruiting fares well despite sanctions

STATE COLLEGE — Penn State’s first recruiting class since the NCAA hammered the program with sanctions includes a potential quarterback of the future and a promising pass-rushing defensive end.

So much for the gloom-and-doom scenarios about getting shunned on the recruiting trail following the steep scholarship cuts as part of the penalties for the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal.

High school prospects could formally declare their college choices starting Wednesday, and coveted Virginia quarterback Christian Hackenberg and highly rated New Jersey defensive end Garrett Sickels were among the 12 players who faxed in letters-of intent.

They joined five prospects who have already enrolled early as freshmen to cap the 17-member Class of 2013 on a relatively drama-free signing day.

“What we want here is a smart team, a high character team. A big, fast football team that can play in all types of weather,” coach Bill O’Brien said at the Penn State football building.

A few touted prospects had taken back verbal commitments since July, after the NCAA announced its sanctions which also included a four-year postseason ban.

Otherwise, the centerpieces of the class, including Hackenberg, Sickels and Pennsylvania tight end Adam Breneman, stuck with their long-standing verbal commitments.

“Sanction-wise, certainly we lost some kids because of sanctions. There’s no question about it,” O’Brien said. “But at the end of the day, all I’m concerned about are the guys who are here. We’re not about collecting talent. We’re about building a team.”

Most recruiting services had Penn State’s class fourth in the Big Ten, behind Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska. As of late Wednesday afternoon, ESPN had Penn State ranked 24th overall in the country, while 24/7 Sports had the Nittany Loins at No. 26. Rivals placed Penn State at No. 43 and Scout at No. 46.

“They get a ‘B’ for results and an ‘A-plus’ for effort, which translates into a real good class,” said veteran CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming.

But it was far from easy.

Days after the sanctions were announced, eight players including Hackenberg and Breneman sat in the same Penn State squad room that O’Brien held his news conference Wednesday. There, the Nittany Lions coaching staff answered questions about the future of the program amid the penalties.

Seven ended up staying, and many have been visible on social media about keeping their pledges to Penn State

Christian Hackenberg’s father, Erick, said O’Brien has been honest with the family during the highs and lows of the last several months. O’Brien has the program back on steady ground following a better-than-expected 8-4 record in 2012 and an improved passing attack.

A pro-style offense modeled after the system O’Brien coordinated in his previous job with the New England Patriots looked good, too, to Hackenberg.

“I don’t think there’s a group of recruits, parents or coaches ... that’s gone through more than Penn State,” Erick Hackenberg said Wednesday in a phone interview. “Everything that (O’Brien) has ever said has been dead on.”

Breneman is already enrolled and taking classes after graduating early from high school. He and the four other January enrollees can take part in spring practice starting next month.

Otherwise, there were no late surprise defections or additions.

“The main theme of the class was keeping it together, rebounding and adding key pieces down the stretch,” said Sean Fitz, editor of Lions24/7, which follows Penn State recruiting. “It was a tough job, a tough sell, but I think they did a phenomenal job.”

The NCAA sanctions capped the number of recruits that Penn State can sign to 15 annually for the next four years starting with the 2013 class. Most teams can sign 25 in a year.

However, recruits who joined Penn State as early enrollees officially count against the 2012 scholarship class – meaning the 2013 class could actually include more than 15 players.

There’s much more work to come.

The sanctions call for the scholarship roster size to be capped at 65 by Sept. 1, 2014. That means the Nittany Lions must build depth through a more aggressive walk-on program – O’Brien calls them “run-ons” in Happy Valley because of the hustle they have to show on the practice field.

A typical run-on might be a Pennsylvania player with offers from a mid-major or Division II team, but is attracted to the prospect of potentially playing for a BCS program despite having to pay for school.

Brian Dohn, a Fox Sports recruiting analyst, praised Penn State for its haul after “nobody thought they would have a class after the sanctions.”

It will also be a task to build depth and potentially rely on run-ons to help fill spots against Big Ten powerhouses like Ohio State and Michigan that might be at full strength, he said. “If it turns out that the walk-on program is generating kids at a higher level, then he’s rediscovered the wheel in recruiting.”

Just fine with O’Brien, who doesn’t pay attention to rankings anyway.

Notes: Penn State announced Wednesday that Central Florida would visit Penn State on Sept. 14 to fill the open date left after Virginia last week backed out of the game at Beaver Stadium. The Cavaliers made the move after lining up a home-and-home series with Oregon to begin in Charlottesville, Va., this season. ... O’Brien was previously an assistant from 1995 to 2001 under current Central Florida coach George O’Leary when O’Leary was head coach at Georgia Tech.

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Local Sports
  • racin 0416 Jennerstown Speedway gearing for May open

    Jennerstown Speedway released a very ambitious schedule on its website and continues to prepare for its 2014 reopening.
    The track is set to hold a practice day for drivers as well as an open house and media day on April 26.

    April 16, 2014 2 Photos

  • ‘Hawks already building toward next season

    Jason Spence used up his cell phone’s battery on a trip from Johnstown to his parents’ home in Nova Scotia, Canada.
    Once the Johnstown Tomahawks coach got to his destination, Spence had to get creative to secure cell service across the border.

    April 16, 2014

  • Pirates 0416 Dominant Cueto drops Pirates in matinee

    That playoff loss in Pittsburgh last year? Johnny Cueto never thought about it much. So getting a chance to shut out the Pirates in a rematch wasn’t any more special.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Penguins 0416 Penguins rally to wear out Jackets

    Brandon Sutter scored on a wrist shot from the left circle 8:18 into the third period, helping the Pittsburgh Penguins rally for a 4-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Wednesday night.
    Beau Bennett and Matt Niskanen scored power-play goals 45 seconds apart in the second period, erasing Pittsburgh’s two-goal deficit.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Shelley and McElligot Series serves as reunion for former Chiefs personnel

    Not so long ago, Bob McElligott, like most Western Pennsylvania hockey fans, would savor a long Pittsburgh Penguins playoff run.
    The Somerset native followed the Pens’ Stanley Cup-winning teams in 1991 and 1992.

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • Malkin nearing return

    The Columbus Blue Jackets are the closest NHL team to the Pittsburgh Penguins, at least geographically. The two franchises are separated by 185 miles of highway.

    April 15, 2014

  • Reds swing way past Pirates

    Mike Leake doubled and hit a two-run homer Tuesday night, ending Gerrit Cole's winning streak and leading the Cincinnati Reds to a 7-5 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates that completed two days full of homers and delays.
    First, the NL Central rivals completed a game that was suspended in the sixth inning because of rain the previous night.

    April 15, 2014

  • Pitt ends its spring practices

    No tailgating.
    No trip to a local high school.

    April 15, 2014

  • Pirates Game 1 0415 Pirates edge out Reds in suspended game

    After all those home runs and an overnight delay, it was settled by a single.
    Andrew McCutchen doubled and came around on Russell Martin’s single in the seventh inning on Tuesday, giving the Pittsburgh Pirates an 8-7 victory over the Cincinnati Reds in the completion of a game that spanned two days and 10 home runs.

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • track_B1 WestPAC relays go to Windber boys, Berlin girls

    Rain showers and dropping temperatures put a damper on Monday’s WestPAC Relays at Berlin Brothersvalley High School.
    For the Berlin girls and the boys from Windber, however, discomfort was not much of a factor.
    The Mountaineers won their third straight relay title while the Ramblers reclaimed the title from defending champ Shade.

    April 14, 2014 2 Photos