Class of 2013 recruits intend to restore pride in Penn State football

Posted: June 28, 2012

WHILE MUCH of State College and beyond was captivated by the verdict in the Jerry Sandusky trial, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien was working, continuing to build his under-the-radar 2013 recruiting class by adding another four-star prospect.

This time it was Dorian Johnson, an offensive tackle from Belle Vernon, outside Pittsburgh. Johnson gives the Nittany Lions commitments from their seventh prospect rated as a four star, and four of the top 10 juniors in the state. Rivals.com has the growing class that stands at 12 players ranked 13th in the nation.

The Sandusky scandal rocked the football program in Happy Valley, but it is becoming more evident, to the surprise of many, that it is having a negligible impact on the recruiting process for the new coaching staff.

In fact, for some 2013 commits, it has become a rallying cry.

"While it is terrible it happened, it almost kind of motivated me to go to Penn State," said Adam Breneman, a Camp Hill, Pa., native who committed in March. "I am one of the kids that wanted to be a difference-maker."

Breneman, the consensus top-ranked tight end in the country, seems genuinely enthused to be part of the healing process.

"I tell people that it's something really special to be part of, and it takes a special kid to go to Penn State in a time like this," he said. "A lot of kids we have aren't just great football players — they're great people who want to make a difference."

Breneman, who recently tore his ACL in seven-on-seven drills with his Cedar Cliff High team, was one of a number of PSU commits to exchange tweets with Johnson after his announcement, using a "Restore the Roar" hashtag that several members of the class have adopted.

"It's a PSU football thing," Johnson said of the Restore the Roar campaign. "I just started noticing it more on Twitter. It shows there is already camaraderie there."

For months, a steady barrage of negativity has rained down on Happy Valley from media outlets around the country. Meanwhile, safely inside their respective bubbles as high schoolers, an "us-against-the-world" mentality has begun to unify the future staples of Penn State football. The players cannot sign their letters of intent until February.

"We're Coach O'Brien's first recruiting class," Breneman said. "We're the first group in this new era. We're going to do everything we can to take the focus off the negative and put it towards the good things that the 2013 class is doing."

Joining Breneman and Johnson is Christian Hackenberg, a pocket passer from Virginia ranked seventh among quarterbacks by Rivals.com. Hackenberg, who committed in February, says the tight-knit group jelled during its experience at the Blue-White Game in the spring.

"I think as a class, the success of the coaching staff is going to be based a lot on us and how we perform," he said. "I think they've done a great job and we're going to get up there and play really well. We should set the tone for recruiting classes to come."

Perhaps more remarkable than the level of talent O'Brien has secured is the speed with which he has done it. On top of the lingering Sandusky situation, some critics questioned if the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator had the necessary skills to recruit for a college football titan such as Penn State.

But so far, O'Brien seems to have done everything right. He has maintained the program stronghold in the Northeast while extending its recruiting zone south, snagging safety Neiko Robinson — the program's first Florida commitment since 2001. O'Brien has said that the core of Penn State recruiting will come from within 5 or 6 hours of State College, although the coaches also are aiming to attract some national talent.

To potential signees, O'Brien has preached a new time of Penn State football — one that, for better or worse, will operate without connection to the previous establishment.

"This is a new era of Penn State football. That has nothing to do with how we feel about the past 50 years," O'Brien said this spring at the Associated Press Sports Editors Mid-Atlantic meeting.

He said the reaction from recruits and families has been "very positive . . . definitely a sense of moving forward." He has preached openness as a "preemptive strike" with recruits and their families concerned about Penn State's image.

"He is so straightforward with everything," Johnson said of O'Brien, who he says was a major factor in his decision to attend Penn State. "He just tells you how it is."

O'Brien has done the same thing with his staff when it comes to evaluating players.

"When we view a prospect, or we get to know a prospect, it's what our eyes tell us about his football ability," he said. "It's what our brain tells us about his transcript. It's what our heart tells us about his character. Whether he has four stars, five stars, one star, a half a star, eight stars, 20 stars, I could care less. I really could care less."

To be fair, the skepticism about O'Brien probably was warranted. This will be his first head-coaching job. He has spent the previous four seasons patrolling NFL sidelines as an assistant coach for the Patriots and before that, was an assistant at Duke, Maryland, Georgia Tech and Brown.

But there is an indication that O'Brien's initial recruiting success has made a believer out of many analysts.

"At first I didn't know if it was the right hire because he wasn't a big-name guy," said Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.

"But obviously this guy can recruit like crazy. He has never done it on this level, but he seems to have a way about him with these kids. And I'm not saying it's at an Urban Meyer level, but it's pretty impressive. So yes, clearly recruitingwise, he was the right hire."

Along with his pro-style offense, it sounds as if O'Brien will bring an NFL mentality to the locker room at Beaver Stadium.

"He runs a pro-style system," Breneman said. "Not just a pro-style offense, but a pro-style program."

Breneman made it no secret that O'Brien's use of tight ends in New England was a major factor in his decision. The same goes for Hackenberg, a pro-style quarterback hoping to thrive under his future coach as Tom Brady did.

"It's a very unique situation that I couldn't get in many other places in the country," the 6-4 quarterback said. "Just having that personal relationship with your head coach on a day-to-day basis was something that was huge."

It turns out that O'Brien's NFL ties, originally deemed a hindrance by his detractors, have aided his transition. Additionally, he has taken to the unique responsibilities that come with running a major college football program.

Essentially juggling two positions as the Patriots made their Super Bowl run, O'Brien did an admirable job salvaging what remained of the previous staff's 2012 signees.

In May, when most college coaches have time off, he embarked on a 3-week, 18-stop coaching caravan that spanned seven states. The intent was to rally Penn State fans around the Northeast and ensure them their storied program is in good hands.

More than anything, O'Brien and his recruits have given the football-crazed Nittany Lion faithful a glimmer of hope. With Sandusky behind bars, they allude to a future where, once again, only what happens on the field will matter at Beaver Stadium. Until then, they all have plenty of work to do.

"There is a bunch of names they still have on their list," Farrell said. "But every time they get a four-star kid, it raises the interest of other kids."

Update (12:56 p.m.): Penn State landed Maryland linebacker Zach Bradshaw, according to reports.

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