UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said his program isn’t struggling to attract high school prospects to home games.
O’Brien said between 40 and 50 prospects have attended each of this season’s first three games at Beaver Stadium. Another large contingent of recruits is expected Saturday when Penn State (3-2) meets 24th-ranked Northwestern (5-0) at noon.
O’Brien revealed the number at Tuesday’s weekly news conference. His passionate response about the program’s recruiting efforts stemmed from a question regarding the importance of retaining some key pieces of the 2013 recruiting class.
NCAA rules prohibit O’Brien from discussing players until February’s national signing day. The Nittany Lions’ 11-member class includes four-star prospects Adam Breneman, Christian Hackenberg, Brendan Mahon and Garrett Sickels.
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“I have been very, very impressed with the fact that people really, really enjoy being recruited by us and coming to games here,” O’Brien said.
The Nittany Lions faced some major challenges after the NCAA’s announcement of sanctions of schools, losing six players from the 2013 class. But their recruiting efforts have accelerated with the recent commitments of Georgia defensive back Kasey Gaines and Virginia offensive lineman Tanner Hartman.
Penn State is not permitted to have more than 15 players in its next four recruiting classes because of the sanctions. Scholarships will be capped at 65 beginning in 2014.
“Is it going to be hard?” O’Brien said. “Yeah. Recruiting is hard. But at the end of the day, I think there’s a lot of good stuff.”
The recruiting questions started early Tuesday. The second question of the 30-minute news conference involved the priority of identifying kickers and punters given the sanctions.
“It will always be a big priority to identify obviously all the positions of need, and obviously that includes placekicker and punter,” O’Brien said. “Ideally you’d like a guy that can do both so it’s one person.”
Sophomore Bill Belton, who missed four games with a high ankle sprain, gained 65 yards on 16 carries in last Saturday’s 35-7 victory at Illinois. More importantly, he experienced no discomfort.
“Sunday morning my ankle felt great,” he said.
Belton received 28 days between his first and second games of 2012. He spent a large part of his football-related time with athletic trainer Tim Bream and his staff. Belton injured his ankle in the third quarter of a season-opening loss to Ohio University on Sept. 1. Belton gained 53 yards on 13 carries and fumbled early in the game.
“I was constantly replaying that first game in my head and looking for things to improve on,” said Belton, played wide receiver last season. “That was kind of my motivation, just getting back on track health-wise. It definitely was hard taking an injury like that. I wanted to get back. I did anything to get back.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has a personal interest in following Penn State’s linebackers because of his relationship with the group’s coach.
Ron Vanderlinden, who has coach Penn State’s linebackers since 2001, helped Fitzgerald develop into one of the top linebackers in Big Ten history. Vanderlinden worked as Northwestern’s defensive coordinator from 1992-96. Fitzgerald earned Big Ten and national defensive player of the year honors in 1995 and ’96.
“I have the utmost respect for Vandy as a teacher and a man,” Fitzgerald said. “Our relationship outside of this week is very close. I love him like a second father.”
Massaro, Obeng-Agyapong expected to play
O’Brien said senior defensive end Pete Massaro and junior safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong should be available Saturday.
Massaro has missed the past three games with shoulder and knee injuries. Obeng-Agyapong left last week’s game at Illinois because of cramps. Massaro is listed as possible on the official injury report.
“Both of those guys will be good to go unless something happens,” O’Brien said. “I mean it’s Tuesday. We have a full-pad practice (Tuesday), Wednesday shoulder pads, Thursday. ...You know what I’m saying? We really should have this press conference on Friday.”