CAMP HILL — After the harshest sanctions in the history of the NCAA were levied against his program last summer, Bill O’Brien started to foresee the obstacles he and his assistants would have to dodge in the recruiting realm.
Before he had even coached his first game, O’Brien’s recruiting toolbox was scavenged by the NCAA. There would be no bowl games for players to look forward to and the number of scholarships the Nittany Lions could award was cut to 15 per class for the next four years.
Meanwhile, Penn State is required to be at the 65-scholarship maximum by the start of the 2014 season. Now that the Nittany Lions are on schedule to meet that requirement a year earlier than originally asked to, O’Brien is pretty enthusiastic about the future despite the restraints he’s been burdened with.
For the most part, the excitement surrounding this new era of Penn State football hasn’t died down.
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“There is no lack of interest in Penn State,” O’Brien said. “Somebody said when the sanctions came out that Penn State football would become irrelevant, and that’s obviously not true. We feel good about where we’re at. It’s going to be a hard climb but we have a lot of kids that are interested in our program.”
On the field, what Penn State was able to accomplish last season has helped the Nittany Lions maintain a good reputation in high school recruiting circles. Penn State went 8-4 and O’Brien won multiple national coaching awards.
Doing so in the fashion the Nittany Lions did didn’t hurt either. Fans were treated to a high-octane offense that outscored opponents 29-19, a defense led by NFL prospects and a coaching staff that wasn’t afraid to push the envelope as O’Brien opted to go for it on fourth down 34 times last season.
Recruits have taken notice. Even before those on-field results were in the books, O’Brien was able to keep the majority of his first recruiting class — ranked No. 30 in the country despite losing a handful of verbal’s — together for signing day.
In February, Penn State inked a group of prospects that included the two of the most coveted recruits in the country. Tight end Adam Breneman and quarterback Christian Hackenberg, rated as four- and five-star recruits by 247sports.com, reaffirmed their commitments to Penn State and signed with 16 others. Among them, four were four-star recruits.
Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions have added nearly 25 run-on players — prospects talented enough to earn scholarship money elsewhere in lesser classifications but turned them down for a chance to play at Penn State.
“We were concerned about that when the sanctions came out and I think that it shows you, in my opinion, the power of Penn State, what has been built here over the years,” O’Brien said.
And the Nittany Lions will continue to try and build. They’ll have a big pool to choose from although O’Brien admitted they must be more selective moving forward.
“We’ve found that out. We had 67 unofficial visits to our spring game,” O’Brien said. “We have tremendous interest in our program. Now, the problem for us is we can’t sign them all. We can only sign 15 a year. So we have to do a great job of making sure we’re filling our needs and taking the right kids.”
So far, Penn State has six oral commitments in the 2014 recruiting class. Among them, athlete DeAndre Thompkins and wide receiver Chris Godwin are four-star recruits.
On their own
There is a little bit of apprehension on O’Brien’s part when he thinks about his players scattering for the spring and first portion of the summer months.
For now it’s up to them to maintain on their own.
“You’re not around them so there’s a certain anxiety about not being around them,” O’Brien said. “We try to educate them about what they need to do to get better in the summer individually that is going to help our football team. And then our strength staff just does a fantastic job of working with these guys in the summer.”
The NCAA prohibits coaches from talking football with their players over the summer — a rule O’Brien acknowledged needs to be reevaluated — so the coach won’t talk Xs and Os with his team until August. Until then, most players will spend time in their hometowns before returning for one of the two summer semesters.
When they get back in State College, workout schedules will be set and kept by players as all workouts are voluntary.
“I love these kids. I think it’s a great group of guys,” O’Brien said. “I think they’re self-starters and whether that leads to a bunch of wins next year, who knows but I think they’ll come back in better shape and stronger and more knowledgeable about what we do on offense and defense.”
After the NFL Draft ended last weekend, O’Brien found himself a busy man, texting and calling his former players who hadn’t been selected by a pro team.
Most of them found spring work with an NFL franchise quickly.
Cornerback Stephon Morris and center Matt Stankiewitch both signed free agent deals with the New England Patriots, while offensive tackle Mike Farrell and fullback Michael Zordich signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers, respectively.
Quarterback Matt McGloin turned down a free agent contract with an unspecified team and decided to attend an upcoming rookie camp with the Washington Redskins, his agent said.
O’Brien said he talked to McGloin numerous times in the days leading up to his decision and also swapped texts with other players.
“Mostly text messages, just congratulations and how proud we are to have been associated with those guys,” O’Brien said. “They’ll go great. Those organizations that have those guys in there on their teams right now, to me those are great things for those teams.”
Although Penn State is barred from bowl competition, O’Brien has floated the idea of playing a game overseas as a destination event.
On Thursday, O’Brien said Penn State was getting closer to ironing out the details for such a game, but was vague about the process.
“I wouldn’t say we’re right there, but I think we’re getting there,” O’Brien said. “We’re trying to get there. I’m pretty positive about it. I wouldn’t say it’ll be announced tomorrow.”