However, things got better. The Nittany Lions improved on the field. First-year coach Bill O'Brien received rave reviews for uniting the university and the community following the sanctions and remained positive with his team and his recruits. Hackenberg chose to stay and joined with top-ranked tight end Adam Breneman to serve as unofficial recruiting coordinators, convincing others in their class to honor their commitments.
The result is that 12 members of the Class of 2013, including Hackenberg, are expected to sign national letters of intent on Wednesday. Six players, most of whom committed before the sanctions, have been rated four-star by at least one of the prominent recruiting services.
"I think it's an amazing job done by Bill O'Brien in light of all the obstacles he had to overcome since July when the sanctions came down to what he's done now," Farrell said. "It's really remarkable. I think it's probably the most underappreciated recruiting job of the year."
Breneman, also a four-star player, and four other recruits enrolled last month and will participate in spring practice. They do not count against the 15-scholarship limit for 2013 imposed by the NCAA but as 2012 signees.
"When you consider everything they endured off the field, I think the class is phenomenal for what Bill O'Brien was able to do," said Bob Lichtenfels, Eastern recruiting analyst for 247Sports.com. "I think he has done a very good job of selling the program and selling his philosophy of what he does."
It doesn't hurt that O'Brien came from the New England Patriots, where as offensive coordinator he coached future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. Hackenberg, who passed for 2,144 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, was sold right away, becoming the class' first commit almost one year ago.
While he waffled a bit after the sanctions, Hackenberg was back on board during the fall. On a visit during Ohio State weekend in October, he said, "I'm loving everything O'Brien has done with the team. He's one of the main reasons why I committed here, and he keeps proving me right."
Breneman, who missed last season after suffering a torn ACL, and Hackenberg emerged as the class' glue guys. Less than a week after the sanctions were imposed, Breneman coordinated a meeting at Penn State attended by Hackenberg and four others in a show of support for the program. All but one stayed.
Brian Dohn, Eastern recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said he admired Breneman and Hackenberg for their leadership roles but credited O'Brien for finding their type.
"He recruited kids with high character," Dohn said. "Not only would he talk to the parents and the coaches, he would talk to coaches on other teams that played against those kids to find out how they acted, what kind of kid they were. That's a pretty big chunk of the reason why the class came together."
The class consists of four defensive backs, three offensive linemen, three defensive linemen, two linebackers, two quarterbacks and one each at running back, wide receiver and tight end. Linebacker Zayd Issah of Harrisburg, who decommitted on Sept. 7, re-committed on Dec. 9.
The second quarterback is California junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson, who might be the short-term replacement for Matt McGloin since he will practice in the spring. Hackenberg, who will remain at Fort Union until his May graduation, won't practice with the team until August, leading to the chance he may redshirt.
Sanctions have limited the Nittany Lions to 65 scholarships as a team beginning in 2014, so O'Brien has strived to develop depth by inviting at least 20 preferred walk-ons for preseason practice.
One condition of the sanctions still provides for current Penn State players to transfer to another school, up to the start of preseason practice in early August, without having to sit out a year, a possibility that stresses the importance of depth.
Penn State Recruiting Class
Name Pos. Ht. Wt. High School
Richy Anderson* RB 5-11 180 Gov. Thomas Johnson (Md.)
Brandon Bell LB 6-1 220 Oakcrest/Mays Landing
Adam Breneman* TE 6-5 229 Cedar Cliff/Camp Hill, Pa.
Curtis Cothran DE 6-5 240 Council Rock North
Parker Cothren DE 6-5 265 Hazel Green (Ala.)
Tyler Ferguson* QB 6-4 210 Coll. of the Sequoias (Calif.)
Kasey Gaines S 5-10 160 Grayson/Loganville, Ga.
Christian Hackenberg QB 6-4 212 Fork Union Military
DaeSean Hamilton WR 6-0 182 Mountain View (Va.)
Tanner Hartman G 6-4 250 Lynchburg Christian
Zayd Issah LB 6-3 210 Central Dauphin
Brendan Mahon G 6-5 300 Randolph (N.J.)
Andrew Nelson G 6-5 262 Hershey
Neiko Robinson CB 6-0 170 Northview (Fla.)
Garrett Sickels DE 6-4 234 Red Bank Regional (N.J.)
Anthony Smith* CB 6-1 186 Valley Forge Military
Academy (Randolph, N.J.)
Jordan Smith* CB 5-11 180 Woodson (D.C.)
*Enrolled in January, does not count against 15-scholarship limit for 2013.
Contact Joe Juliano at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @joejulesinq