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The emails are flooding the inboxes of Penn State football coaches — and Bill O’Brien and his assistants must take them seriously.
Beginning in 2014, the Nittany Lions will be limited to 65 football scholarships because of the NCAA sanctions levied against the school last month. The NCAA permits teams to keep 105 players.
So, how will Penn State fill the other 40 spots? Or, more importantly, where will Penn State find 40 talented athletes willing to write checks to attend college?
The emails reveal common themes and datelines.
The restrictions, which also limit Penn State to 15 incoming scholarship players each of the next four years, are creating a massive border-securing process. At least 38 percent of Penn State’s 2014-17 rosters will consist of walk-ons, a term O’Brien wants to eventually ban around the Lasch Building.
“We will have to call them different names,” O’Brien said.
Walk-ons, non-scholarship players, under-recruited prospects or whatever snappy name they receive might determine whether Penn State remains competitive in the Big Ten. The majority of the Nittany Lions’ future opponents will carry 85 scholarship players.
Finding talented, tuition-paying football players isn’t simple, but the closer one gets to State College, the easier it might be for Penn State to find recruiting bargains.
“We have some kids because they grow up in the area who dream of playing at Penn State, but they might be a little smaller or slower than they need to be to be a scholarship player,” said State College High School coach Al Wolski, whose program regularly ships solid players, including 2011 star running back Jack Haffner, to Penn State as walk-ons.
“Now they will need to fill those 20 spots they are losing with good players, but those players are out there. A lot of times it takes kids four years to mature. Not only do they contribute, some turn into starters. It’s going to create more opportunity for those players.”
Touring Central Pennsylvania
Former coach Joe Paterno constructed a solid walk-on program during his 46-season tenure, with Josh Hull, Graham Zug, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler representing recent success stories.
Hull developed into a starting linebacker and now plays for the St. Louis Rams. Zug bypassed Division I-AA opportunities to walk on at Penn State, where he started at wide receiver. Norwood and Butler, now NFL wide receivers, helped Penn State win the 2005 Orange Bowl.
Zug said it took the proper perspective and perseverance to parlay his opportunity into bigger things. He earned a scholarship after teammates pleaded with coaches to give him financial assistance.
“There’s a ton of walk-on guys that don’t get recruited out of high school that are just as athletic and just as skilled in football,” Zug said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for walk-ons to come here, and they do a good job of doing that and giving guys a fair chance.”
Hull, Zug and Norwood’s backgrounds featured a common theme: they attended Central Pennsylvania high schools. Hull (Penns Valley) and Norwood (State College) played high school football in Centre County while Zug competed at Class AAA power Manheim Central. Norwood’s father, Brian, also was an assistant coach under Paterno.
This year’s starting quarterback, senior Matt McGloin, joined the program as a walk-on after a successful career at West Scranton High School. Senior safety Jacob Fagnano, who attended Williamsport High School, is another former walk-on who entered presason camp atop the depth chart.
O’Brien said in-state players will comprise the nucleus of Penn State’s walk-on program. His staff started a major outreach program before the sanctions were announced, with assistants visiting high schools throughout the state. O’Brien also participated in an ambitious regional alumni tour in May.
Finances make attracting in-state walk-ons more feasible than crossing state lines to find under-recruited players. Penn State’s 2012-13 tuition rate for in-state freshmen and sophomores is $15,562 per year. Students outside Pennsylvania pay $27,864. The fees don’t include room and board.
O’Brien was planning a robust walk-on program before the sanctions were revealed, but the scholarship reductions increase the program’s importance.
“You can look at high school football in the state of Pennsylvania and say, ‘Look, here are these kids that are good students, high-character kids that have some redeeming qualities as football players,’” O’Brien said. “And they don’t have to pay a ton to go to Penn State. Maybe they are on an academic scholarship or Rotary Club scholarships or whatever it might be. The model stays the same, but the numbers are so much bigger.”
Secondary coach John Butler, who attended high school in Philadelphia, said Penn State has received emails from players, coaches and parents “across the board.”
“They understand the issues at hand,” Butler said. “They are either going to want to be part of Penn State or they don’t. We are going to focus on the ones that do.”
Offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, who recruits Central Pennsylvania, said forging relationships with local high schools is critical to any major program’s success. McWhorter coached at Texas from 2005-10 and abandoned retirement to join O’Brien at Penn State.
The affable McWhorter, a lifelong southerner, scoured his new recruiting area for the first time this past spring. Seeing a coach in their offices who helped Texas reach BCS title games in 2005 and ’09 stunned coaches at many small, rural high schools.
“Take away anything that has happened in recent history. ... I think it’s always important to cultivate relationships with the high schools,” McWhorter said. “In my area, I went to a lot of schools, and I don’t know if some of them ever had a Penn State player. But I promise you, everyone has one at some point. To get those relationships going really helps.”
‘There’s a lot of pride in that’
Multiple Big Ten programs, including consistent winners Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa, use walk-ons to enhance their rosters.
Wisconsin, the preseason favorite in the Big Ten Leaders Division, has won 10 games in each of the past three seasons. The Badgers started seven former walk-ons against Oregon in last year’s Rose Bowl. Senior offensive tackle Ricky Wagner and junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis are former walk-ons now considered among the Big Ten’s best players at their positions.
Coach Bret Bielema said the players feature one of three characteristics: they are under-sized, under-recruited or under-developed.
“If you have a kid that falls into one of those categories, you usually have a chance,” Bielema said. “The under-sized and under-developed are easy to see. A guy might have never lifted weights or whatever. The under-recruited, is tougher. Maybe he’s from a small town that hasn’t had the exposure, and you would say, ‘Wow, if this kid lived in Chicago, he would have 15 offers.’”
The majority of the Badgers’ walk-ons hail from Wisconsin. Bielema said the school’s in-state tuition fee, which is $10,380 per year, helps the program find recruiting bargains.
“You don’t have to break the bank,” he said. “A lot of our kids are kids from in the state, and there’s a lot of pride in that.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said internal confidence is a trait shared by tight end Dallas Clark and offensive lineman Bruce Nelson, two of the top walk-ons in the Hawkeyes’ history.
Clark left Iowa after his junior season and caught 427 passes for 4,887 yards in nine seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. Nelson, who arrived at Iowa as a 225-pound tight end, developed into an All-American lineman and second-round NFL draft pick.
Ferentz said his team tries to emulate Iowa’s storied wrestling program by developing non-scholarship athletes into significant contributors. Ferentz has won 96 games in 13 seasons while the Hawkeyes own 23 NCAA wrestling titles. The NCAA limits wrestling teams to 9.9 scholarships, a meager total considering the sport’s physical and mental demands and 10-athlete lineups.
Like Wisconsin, most of Iowa’s top walk-ons reside within state borders. Iowa’s in-state tuition fee is $8,057 per year.
“Our wrestling program has done a great job of that historically,” Ferentz said. “They get guys that maybe aren’t the sexiest at the dance, but after four years, they end up being pretty good wrestlers. It’s still important to do that in football.”
One of college football’s heralded walk-on programs belongs to Nebraska, which joined the Big Ten last year. Former coach Tom Osborne, now the school’s athletic director, constructed a national power by receiving major contributions from in-state players.
The Cornhuskers devote two pages of their 2012 media guide to promoting a walk-on program that has sent 29 players to the NFL. Twenty-three of those players were on Osborne-coached teams.
Osborne led the Cornhuskers from 1973-97 before embarking on political and administrative careers. A modest in-state tuition rate of $7,948 per year aids Nebraska’s walk-on program.
“It has been a long-standing tradition at our place,” said Bo Pelini, the school’s coach since 2008. “It’s important to our program. You have to be dedicated to it. You have to really embrace it. It’s a philosophy as much as anything.”
Pelini, an Ohio native, said Penn State’s location in the middle of a football-rich state should help expand the scope of its walk-on program.
“Anytime you have a top tier program at a state university, like Penn State in Pennsylvania, Texas in Texas, Georgia in Georgia, Alabama in Alabama, there are kids that grow up bleeding the colors of those schools,” he said. “Penn State is certainly no exception there. We have a lot of players that love Penn State that will have a little better opportunity to come here and play than they would have.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.com.