At Penn State, the recruiting war returns

Posted: December 01, 2012

It was the Monday after the NCAA sanctions hit, and Tom Hailey had just arrived at a Christian convention.

And then his phone started ringing. The first caller was a coach from Clemson.

"Once my phone rang once, it rang five to seven more times right after that," said Hailey, the head football coach at Steelton-Highspire High School. "UMass, Connecticut - you name it. They all said, 'Once you hear anything, let me know.' "

They were all inquiring about a former player of Hailey's: defensive tackle Jordan Hill, one of the Nittany Lions' top talents.

When NCAA president Mark Emmert announced that, as a part of the Penn State sanctions, any Lions player could transfer with no penalty, college coaches from around the country zeroed in on guys like Hailey.

Hailey said he fielded dozens of calls. The inquiries finally stopped when Michael Mauti, Mike Zordich, and a group of Penn State seniors released a video on YouTube pledging their commitment to the embattled program.

So began the calm after the storm. It's over now. The storm is back.

Once the Lions' 2012 season wrapped up with an overtime win against Wisconsin last Saturday, coaches from around the country could once again make their recruiting pitches. Free-Agency Frenzy, Part II.

Between now and when preseason camp begins in August, any Penn State player can transfer to any Division I institution without the usual penalty of sitting out one season. It is another damaging aspect of the NCAA sanctions, which include a four-year bowl ban and significant scholarship reductions.

As Penn State's 10 coaches work to recruit for the future with a limited hand, they must also recruit their own to remain in Happy Valley.

"Hopefully, they all stay," senior cornerback Stephon Morris said. "The foundation is just 'Stay together, love each other, don't let anyone break you up no matter what they throw at you.' Even if they throw more sanctions, keep fighting."

The targets for other programs this offseason will be the underclassmen, many of whom have thrived in coach Bill O'Brien's system. A tight-knit group of sophomores who call themselves the Supa Six are the main prize.

Big Ten receiver of the year Allen Robinson, defensive end Deion Barnes, tight end Kyle Carter, running back Bill Belton, offensive tackle Donovan Smith and cornerback Adrian Amos have fielded questions about their future throughout the season. Their answers have ranged from the assertive ("We committed to this school and to this coaching staff," Robinson said in September) to the ambiguous ("I'm not sure what's going to come in the offseason," Robinson, said earlier this month).

One factor they could consider is how players who transferred last offseason fared with their new teams. The most high profile is running back Silas Redd, who bolted for preseason No. 1 Southern California. Redd led the Trojans with 817 yards and nine touchdowns, but USC finished the season unranked and with fewer wins (seven) than Penn State (eight). Redd's replacement at Penn State, the unproven Zach Zwinak, rushed for 1,000 yards.

"I don't know if guys like Deion [Barnes] even looked at that kind of stuff," said Ron Stokes, the CEO of the Philly-based Top Prospects Sports group and a mentor to Barnes. "I think Deion is solid in his commitment because he's focused on what Penn State can offer him with academics, athletics and the whole package."

Stokes said Barnes, the Big Ten freshman of the year, has "NFL potential" as long as he continues to receive good coaching.

Another target is 6-foot-7, 264-pound freshman tight end Jesse James, who caught 13 passes for 272 yards and four touchdowns over the Lions' final six games.

Pat Monroe, James' coach at South Allegheny High School in McKeesport, Pa., he's been in contact with the freshman throughout the season and said he has no indication the player is seeking a transfer.

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