For O'Brien, an impediment to recruiting lifted

Penn State's Bill O'Brien leads his team down the tunnel before an NCAA college football game against Syracuse, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, in East Rutherford, N.J. Penn State won 23-17. (AP Photo/Centre Daily Times, Nabil K. Mark)
Penn State's Bill O'Brien leads his team down the tunnel before an NCAA college football game against Syracuse, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, in East Rutherford, N.J. Penn State won 23-17. (AP Photo/Centre Daily Times, Nabil K. Mark)
Posted: September 26, 2013

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien always said the most challenging part of recruiting had nothing to do with the university's image in light of NCAA sanctions, but had everything to do with the low numbers of available scholarships - a total mandated by the penalties.

The NCAA took care of O'Brien's numbers problem on Tuesday when it modified the sanction on scholarship reductions. Instead of being limited to 15 scholarships for the classes of 2014, 2015, and 2016, O'Brien gets to sign 20 players for next year, and a full complement of 25 from 2015 on.

In addition, Penn State's overall scholarship numbers will rise from 75 next season to 80 in 2015 and to the NCAA maximum of 85 in 2016. Under the original sanctions, Penn State would have had no more than 65 scholarship players every year from 2014 through 2017.

The increased scholarships are a big development for Penn State and for O'Brien in particular, perhaps incentive enough for him to stay and build a national power, and pass on overtures from NFL teams as he did last winter.

Speaking Tuesday on the weekly Big Ten coaches call, a rather low-key O'Brien said it was never difficult to recruit the individual athlete after the sanctions were handed down in July 2012. But the numbers were the tough part.

"For instance, say that you could only take one position - say it was an offensive tackle," he said. "That was difficult, that you would only be able to take one kid in the class for that position. But as far as recruiting, we always felt that from the day we walked in here, once we were able to get a young man and his parents on campus, then the place sold itself."

According to recruiting analysts, O'Brien benefits greatly from the extra scholarships.

"Bill O'Brien has brought talent in there with reduced numbers," said Bob Lichtenfels, Eastern recruiting analyst for 247Sports.com. "Now that he's got more to work with, he's going to be bringing in more talent. In terms of coaching and adding that extra depth, five players make a world of difference."

Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said on the service's website that the extra scholarships will help depth, which has been a factor this year.

"The play on the field has remained consistent," Farrell said, "and I think the ability for O'Brien to get some more scholarships will already accelerate the process."

So far, O'Brien has oral commitments from 12 players for 2014, a class that rates anywhere from 25th to 36th on the various recruiting websites. Last year, when O'Brien managed to keep a pair of five-star athletes, quarterback Christian Hackenberg and tight end Adam Breneman, the rankings ranged from 24th to 45th.

On the modifications, O'Brien said it takes a while "to digest everything and then apply it to where you're headed."

"Obviously, we're able to sign some more guys and be able to have a roster of 75 scholarship players next year," he said. "So things will change and we'll see how that goes."

The NCAA announcement did not cover any sanctions other than scholarship numbers. Penn State is banned from postseason play through the 2015 season. The NCAA also fined the university $60 million and vacated 111 wins posted by former coach Joe Paterno from 1998 to 2011.

Former Sen. George Mitchell (D., Maine), the independent athletics monitor for Penn State, said he had recommended that the NCAA hold out postseason eligibility to the university to "create an incentive to stay the course."

On the topic, O'Brien said, "We have to keep doing what we're doing, which is working extremely hard to do what's right for the football program here, for our players, our student-athletes, and most importantly for the university.


jjuliano@phillynews.com

@JoeJulesInq

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