O'Brien opens era with a firm hand

Ted Roof, Penn State's defensive coordinator, talks recruiting.
Ted Roof, Penn State's defensive coordinator, talks recruiting. (GENARO C. ARMAS / Associated Press)

Even though he lost some key recruits, the new Penn State coach held the 2012 class together.

Posted: February 02, 2012

Bill O'Brien found himself caught in a whirlwind these last 26 days, dividing his time between the Penn State head coaching job he accepted on Jan. 6 and his duties as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots while trying to bring home a recruiting class that had splintered in the midst of a scandal.

"It hasn't been as difficult as people may think because of the people involved at both ends," O'Brien said Wednesday on a conference call from Indianapolis following the end of the Patriots' practice four days before the Super Bowl.

"We have a couple of administrative people [with the Patriots] that are assigned to me to help me with the transition. At Penn State, we have a tremendous staff in place that has done a great job through e-mail and text messaging and staying in touch with me and keeping me updated on things that I have to know.

"So [the perceived difficulty] is a bit overblown."

Nineteen players signed national letters of intent Wednesday to be part of the Penn State freshman Class of 2012. There were no late decisions by any player to bolt from his oral commitment to the Lions and no one had a sudden change of heart to hook up with them.

The class isn't as good as it once was. Penn State lost six players - four of them highly rated by recruiting web sites - who originally had committed to the staff of former coach Joe Paterno because of the arrest of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on child sex abuse charges and the subsequent firing of Paterno on Nov. 9.

The final ranking of the class by two top recruiting web sites found the Lions a lowly 49th by Scout.com and 50th by Rivals.com. They were No. 6 and No 7, respectively, in the Big Ten ratings.

But O'Brien and his staff, led by assistant coach Larry Johnson, one of two holdovers from the Paterno administration, secured the remaining commitments, then brought in eight new players with relatively little time at their disposal.

He said Johnson "did a great job of keeping it rolling." He also credited fellow holdover Ron Vanderlinden and six new assistants who had "a lot of experience and had been in situations that were transitional before."

"We hit the ground running, talked and found what we were looking for," O'Brien said. "We worked hard to sign a bunch of guys. We wanted to make sure we secured the commitments that we had the best we could, and then go out and try to find probably the best overall football players and good students available to us."

O'Brien said his role involved watching tape of prospects on the Internet, making some phone calls to recruits, being on campus on Jan. 15 - the day after New England's divisional playoff win - to welcome recruits and passing his NCAA recruiting test.

Two of O'Brien's late commitments are most intriguing.

One is 6-foot-2, 200-pound Steven Bench of Cairo (Ga.) High School, the only quarterback in this class and a rare find in Georgia for Penn State. O'Brien said he and fellow assistants Ted Roof and Mac McWhorter had connections with Bench's high school coach.

O'Brien said he'll probably run a different offense from what Bench saw in high school, but noted that "his accuracy and his decision-making will fit what we're trying to do very well, and his leadership skills really came across to us when he came on his official visit."

Then there is 6-foot, 195-pound running back Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 2,136 yards last season for St. Francis High in Athol Springs, N.Y., who will provide depth at the position.

"With the pounding that that position takes, especially in the Big Ten Conference, I wanted to make sure that we went out and secured a running back," he said. "Akeel is the type of running back that will come in and be ready to play in the conference with that physical style of play."

The Lions went for five defensive linemen, four wide receivers and three defensive backs. Two of those defensive linemen are Philadelphia-area prospects Jamil Pollard of West Deptford High and Austin Johnson of St. Augustine Prep.

The Penn State football program performed an abrupt turnaround from prior national signing days under Paterno, who never commented on the new class or individual players. The university's athletic web site kept a running tally of players as they signed, and O'Brien looked forward to spreading the news about them.

"This is about Penn State," he said. "I believe we've got to get out there and talk about Penn State.

"I think it's important for people, especially people in Pennsylvania, to see how hard we're working as players and coaches, and to see the type of players we have and the character and commitment they have to the football program."

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494, jjuliano@phillynews.com, or @joejulesinq on Twitter.

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