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January 19, 2012
Penn State's short-term recruiting strategy resembles the Nittany Lions' on-field approach in some of their recent losses.
They're spending too much time playing defense.
New coach Bill O'Brien's staff will spend the next two weeks trying to preserve Penn State's remaining verbal commitments for 2012 as the program recovers from one of the biggest scandals in college sports history. It's proving to be a tough fight.
The Nittany Lions, who lost four-star defensive tackle Tommy Schutt to Ohio State last month, lost four-star linebacker Camren Williams to the Buckeyes Friday afternoon. The loss of Williams dropped Penn State's recruiting class from 37th to 44th in the current Rivals.com team rankings.
One year after placing 35th in the team rankings, Penn State seems destined to sign a lightly regarded class again. It currently does not have a verbal commitment from any of the nation's top 140 prospects.
The scandal - which cost legendary coach Joe Paterno his job after child sexual abuse charges were made against his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky - certainly has had an impact on this year's class. But area high school coaches do not think it will drive recruits away from Penn State for years to come.
Although most of those coaches are still getting to know O'Brien, they have favorable early impressions of the New England Patriots offensive coordinator and feel the move has set up the school for future success.
"The thought they have a new staff could counter-balance some of the negativity that was out there," said State College (Pa.) Area coach Al Wolski, a former Penn State graduate assistant and the high school coach of ex-Penn State linebacker Nate Stupar and current Nittany Lion wide receiver Alex Kenney. "It depends on what they do now. I think everybody's going to give them a chance from a recruiting standpoint and a coaching standpoint, to kind of see if they can take it in another direction."
The reaction of high school coaches means quite a bit, particularly since Penn State chose to hire someone with no previous ties to the program. O'Brien made that point clear in his introductory press conference.
"We've got to get out in the mid-Atlantic states - our bloodlines," O'Brien said. "Pennsylvania. Maryland. D.C. Ohio. We've got to get out there and we've got to make sure that our coaches are out there in those high schools getting to know those coaches and talking to them about the direction of the Penn State football program right now."
O'Brien can't do much to improve this year's recruiting class. He will remain with the Patriots until the end of their season before focusing entirely on his Penn State duties. The Patriots will play in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. Should they win, O'Brien will remain with the team through the Super Bowl, which comes on Feb. 5 - or four days after National Signing Day.
"I think the Patriots are probably going to the Super Bowl, and if they do, it will be the first time in my memory that a new head coach wasn't able to hit the road prior to Signing Day," Mike Farrell, the national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said. "At least with Charlie, they were done in time that he could actually do some in-home visits and go on the road recruiting. [Notre Dame] finished 40th that year, and I could picture Penn State finishing right around there. They'll probably be equal to that or maybe even a little lower."
O'Brien's background makes him a bit of a mystery as a recruiter. In 14 years as an assistant at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke, O'Brien rarely recruited the caliber of athletes Penn State generally targets.
"I think that was a must - that they keep someone from the previous staff," said Allentown (Pa.) Parkland High coach Jim Morgans, whose coaching staff includes former Penn State quarterback Matt Senneca. "I think it will help, in recruiting especially."
The rest of O'Brien's staff includes a mix of guys with NFL and college backgrounds. New offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, wide receivers coach Stan Hixon and tight ends coach John Strollo each have more than three decades of coaching experience.
"I expected it to be a little more youthful coaching group," Farrell said. "I think what he wanted was a staff that coaches first and recruits second. I thought it would be the opposite. I thought someone would come in and just get a bunch of young guys who could recruit first and coach second. He's been in college, but he hasn't really recruited at a high level in college. NFL guys normally go for experienced coaches more than recruiters. It will be interesting to see how they do recruiting next year."
New defensive coordinator Ted Roof is a former Duke head coach who most recently served as Auburn's defensive coordinator. Secondary coach John Butler arrives from South Carolina, McWhorter spent the last six seasons at Texas and Hixon worked at LSU during its 2003 run to the BCS title. Perhaps their experience in the South might help Penn State broaden its recruiting scope a bit.
But the Nittany Lions' success ultimately will depend on how well they recruit Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic states.
"He has a lot of respect for the tradition and the history and what Coach Paterno had done there," said Aliquippa (Pa.) Hopewell coach Dave Vestal, the high school coach of former Penn State star and 2005 Butkus Award winner Paul Posluszny. "But he also has a vision for the future and he wants everybody to be a part of it and to work together as a team.
"From everything that's been put out there about him, his work ethic and how he treats people, I'm excited to see where the program can go under his leadership."
One Pennsylvania high school coach who has met O'Brien already is Camp Hill Cedar Cliff's Jim Cantafio, who visited Penn State's campus this month to help select players for the Big 33 Football Classic, an annual all-star game that pits Pennsylvania players against Ohio stars. Cedar Cliff has sent numerous players to Penn State, including All-America tight end and former first-round draft pick Kyle Brady.
"I think he's a great hire," Cantafio said. "He's going to bring a lot of enthusiasm to the program, and he's going to bring in a great offensive philosophy that will excite kids."
Cantafio expects to speak with O'Brien again during the college selection process of Adam Breneman, a Cedar Cliff junior rated among the top tight ends in the 2013 recruiting class. Cantafio believes Penn State's football program has received unfair criticism the last 2 1/2 months, and the scandal won't cause him to discourage his players from considering the Nittany Lions.
"I know it's going to hurt them this recruiting class, but I think they will recover and get back to normal," Cantafio said. "Will we ever forget the poor kids who were involved in the scandal? No. But I think Penn State football will survive and they will overcome, and the program will become bigger and better as a result of this."
In at least one respect, this staff actually could improve Penn State's recruiting. Although Penn State has won at least nine games six of the last seven years, the Nittany Lions haven't signed a top-10 class since 2006 and have placed higher than 24th in the recruiting rankings just once during that stretch.
Paterno's deteriorating health prevented him from leaving State College very often for recruiting trips. O'Brien's relative youth will allow him to make more of those in-home visits that often make the difference with highly touted prospects. Farrell noted that Paterno hadn't made an in-home visit since his unsuccessful attempt to sign Terrelle Pryor in 2008.
O'Brien undoubtedly will face plenty of difficult questions when he visits the living rooms of prospects and talks to their parents about the benefits of playing for a program that has received an avalanche of negative publicity. He can only hope the passage of time will help Happy Valley live up to its name again in the eyes of potential recruits.
"I think Penn State will be OK," Farrell said. "He's a good coach. He's got an experienced staff, and kids still want to go to Penn State. And a year from now, I'm assuming another scandal is going to take the place of this one. I'm not saying it's going to be as bad or as shocking as this one, but in September all we were talking about was the worst recruiting scandal in the history of college football - and that was Miami. Before that, it was Ohio State. Before that, it was USC.
"There's always something that comes along and sort of takes the focus off the last one. Once the focus is off, I think they'll start recruiting normally."