Penn State recruiting efforts fall short

Wyoming Valley West quarterback Eugene Lewis, avoiding a sack by Dallas' Jim Roccograndi, will play for Penn State.
Wyoming Valley West quarterback Eugene Lewis, avoiding a sack by Dallas' Jim Roccograndi, will play for Penn State. (BILL TARUTIS/ Times Leader)
Posted: February 01, 2012

A "perfect storm of negativity" delivered a serious hit to Penn State's recruiting class of 2012, depriving it of well-regarded talent and leaving one prominent recruiting analyst wondering if the entire group would pan out.

The shocking disclosure of nearly three months ago, when former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with child sex abuse, sent a cloud over the State College campus of anger and sadness, two emotions that spread to high school recruits wondering if they still wanted to play football for the Nittany Lions.

The firing of legendary coach Joe Paterno and the uncertainty over what would happen to the assistant coaches who recruited these prep stars added further doubt to how many of those who had verbally committed would follow through and become part of the Class of 2012.

It hasn't been good for Penn State. Six players who committed to Paterno's staff have pledged to go elsewhere since the scandal broke. While new head coach Bill O'Brien and his staff hurriedly attracted eight players to the program, only one or two are considered to be impact additions at some point.

In all, 18 are expected to sign letters of intent Wednesday with Penn State. The group does not compare with past recruiting classes, coming in at No. 46 in the nation in the opinion of two primary recruiting websites, Rivals and Scout, and in the middle of the Big Ten.

Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals, said the scandal played a major role - but not the only role - in the quality of the class. After Paterno was fired, the university waited 58 days before its Jan. 6 hiring of O'Brien, who said he would finish the season with the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots as their offensive coordinator.

"I think it would have been better had they hired him quicker and had him around full-time," Farrell said Tuesday. "The delay in hiring a coach so long after the [regular] season ended allowed some kids to come up with backup plans, make other visits. Had he been able to do in-home visits, on-campus visits and meet with the kids personally, I think that would have helped them for sure."

Of the six players who backed out of their commitments, four were ranked in the Rivals 250. All four were plucked away from Happy Valley by new Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer.

Farrell said the scandal, the delay in hiring O'Brien, his ability to be an active recruiter and the presence of Meyer represented "the perfect storm of negativity for Penn State this year."

O'Brien did well to retain the two Paterno assistants who arguably were the program's best recruiters - Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden. They coordinated efforts while O'Brien assembled a staff his first week.

Still, it was difficult to keep some players on board.

St. Joseph's Prep quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg backed off of his commitment and announced he would sign with Florida even though he met one-on-one with O'Brien on Jan. 15.

Another possible factor for Mornhinweg was the successful recruitment by O'Brien of quarterback Steven Bench of Cairo, Ga. Although not rated as highly as Mornhinweg, the 6-foot-2, 219-pound Bench, who committed originally to Rice, could turn out to be a better prospect, according to Farrell.

"He's just started developing as a passing quarterback," he said. "I think he's a big athletic kid. It's going to take him a little while for him to be college ready but I think he could end up being better than Mornhinweg."

The best player in Penn State's recruiting class probably is Eugene Lewis of Plymouth, Pa., who played quarterback at Wyoming Valley West High School but projects as a wide receiver in college. He is rated a four-star prospect by Rivals and Scout and ranks No. 141 in the Rivals 250.

Lewis was part of the Jan. 15 group that met with O'Brien and he was enthusiastic after the meeting.

"I'm excited for him to be my coach," Lewis told the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader. "He's definitely a guy I want to play for."

The only other Penn State recruit who carries a four-star rating (by Rivals) is West Deptford defensive tackle Jamil Pollard, who committed to interim head coach Tom Bradley during TicketCity Bowl week.

A 19th commitment to the Class of 2012, tight end Jesse James of McKeesport, Pa., already is attending classes after enrolling last month.

As for the eight newest commitments, perhaps the best is three-star running back Akeel Lynch, who had considered Oklahoma and Iowa before committing to, and decommitting from, Boston College. Lynch rushed for 2,136 yards and scored 27 touchdowns last season.

"Lynch is the best one he got," Farrell said. "I like him a lot.

"But some of them are reaches. Jonathan Warner is the son of [former Penn State tailback] Curt but he's not a guy that had any other scholarship offers. With some others, it's not like they weren't around before, but nobody was really on them. They're going to have to really exceed expectations for the class to pan out."


Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494, jjuliano@phillynews.com or @joejulesinq on Twitter. Read his blog, "Lion Eyes," at www.philly.com/lioneyes

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