With 12 additional prospects signing letters of intent on Wednesday, Penn State completed its first recruiting class after heavy NCAA sanctions were levied against the program last summer.
Five players enrolled earlier this winter and count toward the 2012 recruiting class, meaning coach Bill O’Brien could still add three more players to this season’s group. The sanctions prevent him from offering scholarships to no more than 15 players each season until 2016.
The second-year coach is quite content for now.
“Overall, this is a great day for Penn State,” O’Brien said. “People may look at me and say, ‘Why do you say that? We’re in the middle of sanctions.’ Well, this is a great day for Penn State because it proves a lot of things about Penn State. No. 1 is we signed some really good kids that committed to us early and stayed committed to us when they could’ve gone elsewhere.”
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Running back Richy Anderson, tight end Adam Breneman and defensive backs Anthony Smith and Jordan Smith and former junior college quarterback Tyler Ferguson joined the program by enrolling in school last month. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg, linebackers Brandon Bell and Zayd Issah, defensive linemen Curtis Cothran, Parker Cothren and Garrett Sickels, offensive linemen Andrew Nelson, Brendan Mahon and Tanner Hartman and defensive backs Neiko Robinson, Kasey Gaines and wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton finalized their commitments on national signing day.
The current crop of incoming players includes five players from Pennsylvania schools (Breneman, Cothran, Issah, Nelson and Anthony Smith), three that played in Virginia (Hackenberg, Hamilton, and Hartman) and three New Jersey prospects (Bell, Mahon and Sickels). Robinson played high school football in Florida while Cothren and Gaines are from Alabama and Georgia, respectively.
Anderson, whose father Richie played for Penn State and in the NFL, is from Maryland while Jordan Smith played at H.D. Woodson in Washington D.C. Ferguson signed with Penn State after playing a season at College of the Sequoias in Bakersfield, Calif.
“What we want here eventually is a smart team, a high character team, a big, fast, physical football team that can play in all kinds of weather,” O’Brien said. “And I think we’ve done that with this recruiting class.”
O’Brien said he relied heavily on his assistants because head coaches are limited to one off-campus visits with recruits by the NCAA.
“What we did was, we found guys that came from good families that were smart guys, that we think are tough guys that we know are going to come here and go to class and be good in the community,” O’Brien said. “And then time will tell about how good they all end up being.”
The sanctions, which also include a bowl ban that will last the next three seasons, did impact the current recruiting class, O’Brien said.
Most of the recruits remained committed to O’Brien.
Shortly after the NCAA imposed its penalties on Penn State in July, six of the Nittany Lions’ top recruits drove to State College to reaffirm their commitments to Penn State. Then, Breneman, Mahon, Sickels, Hackenberg and Nelson made trips to the University Park campus and again voiced their intents to play for Penn State.
“It was a very private meeting. It was a very emotional meeting,” O’Brien said of the encounter that took place in the Lasch Football Building auditorium, the same place O’Brien announced the signings on Wednesday. “I stood right here and probably answered 50 to 75 questions as best as I could. ... I think that was a very important day for us here at Penn State in the football program because it was just a very honest, somewhat emotional, tough but a very productive meeting.”
Due to their scholarship restrictions, the Nittany Lions plan to rely on their walk-on program. O’Brien said the team is expecting to add 13 to 15 players as preferred walk-ons. The NCAA limits teams to 105 players during training camp, and O’Brien guessed he currently has just over 100 players on the roster with the 12 new signees.
Spring practice is set to begin March 18 and conclude with the Blue-White game on April 20. O’Brien implied he would wait until spring workouts begin to decide if any member of the new recruiting class would need to redshirt.
“There’s a lot that goes into that redshirt decision and you can’t make it right now,” O’Brien said.
Quarterback battle looms
When practice starts, O’Brien figures to monitor a quarterback battle involving three players with little to no experience at the Division I level.
With a year in O’Brien’s pro-style offense under his belt, sophomore Steven Bench is the most experienced of the current quarterback crop. But Bench completed just 2 of 8 passes in only two games playing behind Matt McGloin last season. Ferguson, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 199 pounds, threw for 2,614 yards and 22 touchdowns in 10 games for College of the Sequoias last season. He has sophomore eligibility.
Joining the battle is Hackenberg, a highly-touted prospect listed at 6-3, 215 pounds.
“Any one of those guys could be our starting quarterback against Syracuse. There’s no question about it,” O’Brien said. “So don’t expect me to really name a starting quarterback at the end of spring practice. I might, but I might not.”
While O’Brien has complimented both Bench and Ferguson and their skill sets as they project to becoming the starter, Wednesday marked the first time he could publicly comment on Hackenberg.
The Fork Union Military Academy product passed for 2,144 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. Hackenberg will be getting a later start than his two position mates as he’ll join the team this summer.
“He’s making the jump from high school to college. That’s a big jump,” O’Brien said. “The system that we run here at Penn State is not the simplest system in the world to learn for a quarterback so he’s going to have to really begin to study and understand what it takes to play quarterback at this level which we’ve talked about a lot in the recruiting process.”
Southern cooking, Buckeye battleground
With this recruiting class, Penn State has already exceeded the number of players it has plucked from the Deep South in its previous two classes combined.
And although the Penn State staff lost one of its biggest southern recruiters when former defensive coordinator Ted Roof left to take the same job at Georgia Tech earlier this winter, O’Brien and his staff have no plans to vacate southern states any time soon.
“We’ll continue to recruit in the Deep South,” O’Brien said. “We have connections down there.”
O’Brien coached at Georgia Tech for seven seasons while quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher spent seven seasons at West Georgia. Wide receivers coach Stan Hixon also coached alongside O’Brien at Georgia Tech while offensive line coach Mac McWhorter and running backs coach Charles London also have Georgia ties. McWhorter is an Atlanta native and London attended Dunwoody High School in his home state.
“If there’s a connection there, we’ll actively recruit a kid from the south,” London said. “We want to stick withing a five- to six-hour driving range from here. We want to obviously lock down the state of Pennsylvania. We want to do great in Maryland and Virginia and the New England, New Jersey (areas) and we’ve got to do a better job in Ohio.”
Penn State’s previous two recruiting classes brought in two Deep South recruits: linebacker Gary Wooten (Florida) and Bench (Georgia). This season they’re joined by Cothren, Robinson and Gaines.
Meanwhile, the current class contains no players from Ohio, a state dominated by Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes. Ohio State snagged nine Ohio prospects in its class of 25 players, all of them being ranked three-star recruits or better by multiple recruiting services.
“I just feel like we need to get our roots in Ohio a little better than maybe what was done in the past,” London said. “I think there are kids in the state of Ohio who do have interest in Penn State and we’ve got to do a great job of identifying those kids, recruiting them early and getting in there.”
Penn State has landed just two recruits from Ohio in its last five recruiting classes combined: Portsmouth’s Nate Cadogan (2009) and Warren’s Anthony Stanko (2012).
“We have a couple of coaches that are recruiting there,” London said. “Once we can go back out in the spring, we’ll make our rounds through there.”
London alluded to a possible selling point during future recruitment of Ohio players — talk up some Penn State standouts who came out of the state such as O.J. McDuffie, Ki-Jana Carter and more recently Michael Zordich.
“That’s certainly part of our plan, starting to let these kids know,” London said. “A lot of these kids in Ohio, they don’t know that guys from Ohio ever even have gone to Penn State. They think they all go to Ohio State. It’s been just an education process so that’s something we can definitely hang our hat on.”
Hard work pays off
O’Brien said junior safety Ryan Keiser and senior tight end Matt Lehman have earned scholarships. Both were previous walk-on players.
Lehman walked on to the team in time for the 2011 season with sophomore eligibility after attending Shippensburg University and Penn State Harrisburg. Although he didn’t see any playing time in 2011, Lehman quickly established himself as a valuable asset in O’Brien’s system which relies heavily on tight end production.
Using his hulking 6-foot-6, 258-pound frame, Lehman made a name for himself as a sturdy blocker and reliable target. He finished fourth on the team with 24 receptions for 296 yards and his three receiving touchdowns ranked third behind Allen Robinson’s 11 and Jesse James’s five.
Keiser has spent the bulk of his career as a special teams contributor, holding on place kicks during the 2011 season. Last season he played in every game and made five tackles.
UCF game official
Penn State has finally confirmed early reports that the Nittany Lions will play host to the University of Central Florida on Sept. 14 at Beaver Stadium.
The Nittany Lions were originally scheduled to complete a home-and-home series with Virginia inside Beaver Stadium on that date.
In addition, Penn State is looking to play a game in Orlando, possibly during the 2014 or 2015 season.
“We are excited to have UCF returning to the Penn State schedule,” Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said in a release. “We’re pleased that we can bring Bill O’Brien and (UCF coach) George O’Leary, one of his mentors, together on the playing field this fall. We are in discussions with Virginia about finding a date to play in Beaver Stadium.”
O’Brien started his coaching career as a graduate assistant under O’Leary at Georgia Tech in 1995.