O'Brien pleased, but Penn State recruiting class not rated highly

Posted: February 01, 2012

IT APPEARS that Bill O'Brien has at least one thing in common with his predecessor as Penn State's head football coach.

The late Joe Paterno never paid much attention to the assessments of so-called recruiting experts, preferring to trust what he and his coaches saw in a particular player. Frequently, Paterno admitted, he and his staff had to look hard to see the true potential of a 17- or 18-year-old kid who some analyst had dismissed as a two-star project likely destined to be a career backup.

"You got a guy sitting in a television studio saying he likes the way this or that player moves his hips or something like that," JoePa always would say, dismissively, after the outsiders issued their grades on national signing day. "It's ridiculous."

After Penn State signed 19 players yesterday, a group that especially did not wow the analysts whom Paterno held in contempt, O'Brien professed to be pleased with the Class of 2012, which ESPNU rated only 46th nationally and seventh among the 12 Big Ten Conference schools.

"I think it went really well," O'Brien, who, for the rest of this week is still the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator, told Penn State beat writers via teleconference from Indianapolis, where the Pats are getting ready to play the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.

But what of the analysts' lowest ranking for a Penn State recruiting class in years?

"I'm not even sure who does those rankings," O'Brien said. "I just know I'm part of a football team, the New England Patriots, that if you went up and down our roster, you'd find guys that were highly ranked coming out of high school and some guys that were not ranked at all.

"All I care about is our staff and our players, and what they think about guys coming in to help us win games. That to me is the most important thing. And there's no question you can develop young players. There's a chance for guys to get better every day. We've developed young players in the NFL."

Time will tell. O'Brien said it takes at least 2 years to make any reasonable judgment of a recruiting class, so maybe this bunch of mostly three- and two-star prospects will seem better than advertised after O'Brien and his staff get a chance to, as they say, coach 'em up. But even if few standouts emerge, the true test of the O'Brien coaching staff will come a year from now, when they've had time to settle in.

"It's important that we get out in the spring and get to clinics, get to high schools, get our staff out there," said O'Brien, who reaffirmed his intention to concentrate Penn State's recruiting efforts within a 400-mile radius of its State College campus, with occasional forays into the Deep South, where several new assistants have extensive contacts.

Not that he ever would admit to it, but O'Brien's first recruiting class was assembled under more than a little duress. In addition to his splitting his attention between the Patriots and the Nittany Lions, O'Brien also had to deal with the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal and the inordinately drawn-out, 58-day gap between Paterno's firing on Nov. 9 and the new coach's hiring on Jan. 7.

In the current edition of ESPN The Magazine, 45 prospects from the ESPNU 150 were asked several questions, one of which was, "After this fall's scandal, would you still consider Penn State as an option?" A whopping 75.6 percent responded they likely would look elsewhere.

"Every recruit I've talked to agreed that they wanted no part of Penn State," a running back recruit said. "Why would you go there unless you have no other offers?"

While it is true that several high-profile recruits who had given verbal commitments to Penn State backed off and went elsewhere, others stayed the course. Jamil Pollard, a defensive tackle from West Deptford, N.J., recommitted to the Lions on Dec. 29, becoming the first prospect to do so after the Sandusky scandal broke and the legendary Paterno was fired.

"You pick a school based on how the program is and what it always will be," Pollard said, an indication of his belief that Penn State would get through whatever tough times lie ahead.

And tough times likely are ahead, to some degree, especially if this recruiting class doesn't produce some breakout stars.

"One class is never going to destroy your program," said Bob Lichtenfels, a recruiting analyst for Scouts.com. "It might set it back a little in certain spots, depthwise, but you just have to go out the following year and correct that."

Lichtenfels said that, all in all, Penn State did about as well as it could, given the circumstances. O'Brien and his assistants - most notably defensive line coach Larry Johnson, a holdover from the Paterno regime - did an admirable job of holding things together and even adding a few complementary pieces in the last few weeks, after most of the big-name prospects had been locked up elsewhere.

"It could have been worse," said Lichtenfels, who estimated that Penn State would have had a top 15 group were it not for the scandal and the delay in hiring O'Brien. "Granted, 6 months ago they were looking at a very good recruiting class. But it is what it is."

Added Mike Farrell, of Rivals.com: "This is not a typical Penn State class. It's not a very good one. There's some talent there, but the depth is not what it usually is."

O'Brien is right about one thing. The Penn State recruiting class of 2006 was ranked ninth nationally by ESPN, but several highly regarded incoming players that year - wide receiver Chris Bell, quarterback Pat Devlin, defensive tackles Abe Koroma, Phil Taylor and Tom McEowen and offensive linemen Antonio Logal-El and J.B. Walton - either never panned out or did not finish their college careers in Happy Valley.

So let the waiting game begin again.

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