DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 02: Chima Okoli #52, John Urschel #64, Matt Stankiewitch #54 and Johnnie Troutman #74 of the Penn State Nittany Lions during the TicketCity Bowl at Cotton Bowl Stadium on January 2, 2012 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Penn State football recruiting has already made major strides under new coach Bill O'Brien. Jeff Junstrom of Black Shoe Diaries talks with SB Nation about the new recruiting team in Happy Valley.
Penn State faithful are quite fortunate to have recruiting experts like Jeff Junstrom of SB Nation's Black Shoe Diaries. Junstrom has excellent contacts in the Penn State recruiting world, and he joins me today for a look-in at Nittany Lions recruiting.
Penn State failed to sign a consensus top-25 recruiting class in 2012. This wouldn't meet expectations in a normal year, but 2012 was far from a normal year. Did O'Brien meet, exceed or fall short of adjusted expectations during his limited time on the job for the 2012 cycle?
With just a short time between hiring and the end of the Class of 2012, I'd say Bill O'Brien met expectations. Given the nature of the previous three months and the ongoing fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the argument could be made that he exceeded expectations, especially given all of the other issues on his plate (staffing, continuing with the Patriots, etc.), but he didn't go out and sign numerous four- and five-star players like Urban Meyer did, so I'll say he met expectations. It certainly could have been much worse.
What was the most important thing that Penn State did in its 2012 class? What misses in the 2012 class must now be addressed in the class of 2013? Who are the top prospects Penn State is pursuing to meet this need?
Besides keeping it together in the wake of a potentially devastating scandal that many tried to paint as a Penn State football problem, the Class of 2012 helped to add some depth in a couple important places. The staff absolutely had to take a star running back, and they landed four-star Akeel Lynch from New York. A couple of players have been moved from other positions to running back this offseason (Bill Belton from wide receiver, and Zach Zwinak from fullback), but Curtis Dukes is taking the spring off to concentrate on academics, so the depth behind Silas Redd was questionable at best.
Additionally, both cornerback and safety were dangerously thin heading into 2012, so signing at least four defensive backs was imperative. Though they only signed three players (Jake Kiley, Da'Quan Davis, Jordan Lucas) that are supposed to be coming into camp in the secondary, at least two more (Malik Golden, Trevor Williams) are expected to make the move from the crowded receiver spot.
The staff will almost certainly be looking to take at least three or four more defensive backs in 2013. Cornerback Ross Douglas, from Ohio, is already committed. Other than him, Penn State is going after a few prospects -- safeties Anthony Averett from New Jersey, Kirk Garner from Maryland, and Delton Williams from Pennsylvania; and cornerback Darian Hicks from Ohio.
The offensive line has been something of a disappointment recently, and with a new coaching staff that includes a single offensive line coach (and not two coaches, one for guards and centers, and one for tackles and tight ends), it seemed as though there would be a concentration on line recruiting. However, only one tackle was taken (Wendy Laurent), despite two senior tackle starters in 2011.
What position(s) were not a need with the 2012 class due to returning players, but will now be a need in 2013 due to graduation/attrition? Who are the top prospects Penn State is pursuing to meet this need(s)?
One of the most important positions in this class is at linebacker. After the 2012 season, PSU will only have five scholarship linebackers on the roster, so taking two or three in the Class of 2013 is a must. There are a few prospects that the staff seem to be targeting here, including Alex Anzalone from Pennsylvania, Buddy Brown from New Jersey, and Michael Deeb from Florida, among others.
Other than that, the main priority is to start evening out the depth chart. There are a glut of players at some spots (wide receiver, offensive line) while other spots are very thin (cornerback, safety). Every position is a priority, but making sure the positions are stocked well (not too many, not too few) is likely a goal over the next few years.
Which commitment(s) in the 2013 class have been the most important for Penn State?
Penn State is sitting on seven Class of 2013 commitments, and while each of them are important to the class, two of them stand above the rest. First, quarterback Christian Hackenberg from Virginia is a top signal caller in the nation and is the first QB to commit to Bill O'Brien's new offensive strategy. The QB position has been very disappointing to PSU fans over the past two seasons, and Hackenberg brings great potential to 2013. He also is one of the class's best recruiters, as he's constantly looking for additional recruits to bring along to Penn State.
The most important commitment, though, has been Adam Breneman, the five-star tight end from Pennsylvania. Growing up two hours from Penn State, the school was always high on his list, so it wasn't too shocking when he chose the Nittany Lions. However, what he represents is almost as important as how talented he is -- he is a highly recruited, top in-state prospect that chose Penn State amid a heavily-hyped recruitment. While other in-state five-star players have committed to PSU in the past, Breneman's has been the most public in quite some time. The fact that he plays a position that is likely to see a lot of action in Bill O'Brien's offense only adds to his importance to the Class of 2013.
Which commitment(s) to other schools have been the most damaging at this early juncture? Will Penn State be able to flip the recruit(s) committed to the other schools, and if not, who will PSU pursue to fill the need(s)?
Among all recruits holding Penn State offers, only a handful have committed elsewhere. And among those committed elsewhere, none are really that damaging ... yet. The two that stand out are Mike McGlinchey and Ryan Switzer, each of whom were supposed to visit recently, but committed to Notre Dame and North Carolina, respectively, instead. McGlinchey is a four-star offensive tackle from Pennsylvania, and his commitment to the Irish stung a bit because Penn State fans thought they were in a good position and because he is an in-state guy, something Bill O'Brien has made a priority. Switzer is similar in that Penn State fans felt they sat in a good spot with the skilled receiver from West Virginia, but apparently it wasn't to be. As for flipping any commits committed elsewhere, I don't think it's going to happen, though McGlinchey was admittedly told his spot wouldn't be open for long, which signals that he maybe rushed into his decision.
How many recruits do you expect school to take in the 2013 class?
Right now, there are 83 players on scholarship at Penn State, with 14 players in their senior year of eligibility, so the base number is 16. However, with a coaching change and a large number of players heading into their fifth year in 2013 that haven't necessarily contributed too much so far, the total commitments for the Class of 2013 is likely going to be closer to 20. We outline the positional breakdown every Thursday in our Recruiting Roundup, but as best I can tell, the positional breakdown should look like this:
How has the change in offensive style changed what Penn State looks for in a recruit and the composition of the roster? What about defensively?
Well, the coaches are new, that much we know. Eight of 10 coaches at Penn State have changed, with both holdovers from the previous staff coaching on the defensive side of the ball. Bill O'Brien has no head coaching experience, so we don't know exactly what the new offensive style will be, but after watching some of the spring practice sessions, we're starting to find out. O'Brien said he will be bringing a lot of the aspects of the Patriots offense he ran last year, so expect a heavy reliance on quick strikes and an increased emphasis on the tight end position. That latter point is one of the main reasons the commitment of Adam Breneman, universally viewed as the nation's top tight end, is so important.
On defense, new man in charge Ted Roof will bring what he calls a "multiple look defense" in that there won't really be a base defense, like there was under Tom Bradley. The cornerbacks will likely move from a cover style to an aggressive look, playing right up on receivers a good amount of the plays. The front seven isn't likely to change much, with Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden maintaining their control. So the recruiting up front shouldn't change, but in the secondary, you'll see more aggressive players being recruited (Da'Quan Davis is example No. 1) as opposed to players who can simply cover a third of the field.
Let's talk negative recruiting. Penn State has obviously been the victim of a lot of it of late. How has it affected PSU's recruiting efforts? How has the negative recruiting changed with the coaching change? There are a lot of opinions on how Sandusky and his trial being in the news constantly will continue to impact the program and its efforts on the recruiting trail. Do you have a take on that? Do you think it makes sense for PSU to engage in some negative recruiting to remind recruits that it is not the only program with issues? I ask because all coaches claim to not negatively recruit, yet, it happens a lot, and some programs are quite good at it, including a certain coach a few miles to PSU's west.
From the recruits I've spoken with, negative recruiting happens, but it isn't happening to the extent one might have expected. There doesn't seem to be any use of the scandal by other schools to sway recruits away from PSU, a surprisingly refreshing take on college football. Is the scandal going to sway some kids away from PSU regardless of whether other coaches bring it up or not? Yes, undoubtedly. But for the most part, these recruits are smart enough to see through some of the smoke produced by other schools and really take a look at Penn State.
I don't think you'll ever see Penn State negatively recruiting to counteract the scandal. Many of the recruits I've spoken with, including a number of the committed recruits, have said they were very impressed with Bill O'Brien's no-nonsense approach, which I doubt has room for negative recruiting. And if he's truly intent on keeping "the Penn State way" alive and well, he'll be sure to act as honorably as his predecessor.
Let's talk recruiting base. How has the talent level changed in Pennsylvania over the years? What positions does the state produce well on a consistent basis, and what positions cannot usually be filled by an in-state recruit? Can a top program be maintained by recruiting the majority of its players from the Keystone State? Where else should Penn State focus its recruiting efforts?
Pennsylvania is no longer the bed of talent it may have been in the 1970s and 80s. Its production of top-level talent has waned over the years, but you can still be sure that the state will produce a number of nationally recruited players. Offensive linemen are still produced at generous clip, as are defensive linemen and running backs. Unfortunately, the state generally lacks a deep pool of the other skill positions. There may be one or two top guys in the state at QB, WR, and DB, but for the most part, schools aren't knocking down doors to get the top five wide receivers in Pennsylvania. The Class of 2013 has a slightly inflated talent base, which is good for the in-state schools, provided they can keep that talent in-state. It should be noted that just two of PSU's seven commitments are in-state players, but they are looking to add a few more, namely Robert Foster (nation's top receiver) and Dorian Johnson (one of the nation's top offensive tackle prospects).
What is Bill O'Brien's recruiting style? Speaking specifically about recruiting, just how different is the program now than it was under Paterno? In what ways? Is Penn State now offering more recruits earlier?
O'Brien is as direct as they come, and that seems to be working so far. Many of the recruits have had nothing but good things to say about O'Brien, who doesn't BS these guys and tells them about Penn State and what he expects. He doesn't appear to play any games, a refreshing take when many of these young men are inundated with negative recruiting, spot pressuring, and other recruiting nonsense. In terms of the Penn State name, it hasn't changed in the eyes of the recruits, so the same things that recruits were told a year ago still ring true -- come to Penn State and you can get a great education, play for a storied program, and learn from some of the best coaches in the country.
As for offers, that strategy hasn't changed yet, and it doesn't appear to be O'Brien's style to blanket the nation with offers and see what happens. To be sure, there are offers going out that are likely met with little to no mutual interest, and that's a good thing in certain situation. But Penn State isn't sending out 100+ offers like some other major programs; they are targeting a smaller number of players at each position at first, and reacting accordingly.
What is your opinion of O'Brien as a recruiter? Based on an admittedly small sample set, are you comfortable ranking O'Brien as a recruiter against his other conference foes? If so, where would you place him?
If you had asked the Penn State fanbase in early January what they though the chances of Bill O'Brien successfully recruiting against Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke, I think the responses would have been quite negative. And while there haven't been many direct overlaps yet, O'Brien seems to be holding his own as a top recruiter in the area. A number of the current commits have offers from all over the country (including Alabama, which is generally a good sign), so that has to bode well for O'Brien's reputation among other recruits. It's tough to place him on the list thus far, as he's just now working on his first full recruiting class (along with Urban Meyer), but so far so good.
Of course, O'Brien doesn't do it all himself. Who are the recruiting assistants we should know? Has O'Brien increased the size of support and administrative staff to process and evaluate film quicker to churn out earlier offers?
First and foremost, there is Larry Johnson, the defensive line coach and producer of regular NFL talent. His general recruiting area consists of the DC/VA/MD area, and he's been quite successful there in the past. But under O'Brien, every staff member is also assigned a national recruiting area, and we've seen Johnson in Florida and California recruiting top players.
Other than the NCAA approved increase in GAs from two to four, it doesn't appear that O'Brien is changing much in the way of how the recruiting machine runs at Penn State. Charles London was named recruiting coordinator early on, and London has already produced some results on his own, being partially responsible for the commitment of Akeel Lynch in the Class of 2012.
Just as Penn State doesn't scrimmage itself on Saturdays, it has opponents in recruiting as well. Penn State obviously wants to get back into the top group in the Big Ten of Ohio State and Michigan. Discuss the challenge of recruiting against Urban Meyer, particularly when Meyer is now the top dog in a loaded state. What are some realistic expectations for recruiting in the state?
Meyer is going to be a challenge, that's for sure. The head coach of Ohio State was going to be a hated man in State College regardless, but Meyer made early enemies when he managed to flip a number of Penn State commits in the Class of 2012. He finished that class in pretty impressive fashion, so it's not going to be easy going against him for top talent. But Coach O'Brien has proven pretty quickly that he can get top talent to commit to Penn State, so it will be fun to watch when the true PSU/OSU battles get going.
Ohio is going to be slightly more open for business under Meyer than it was under Tressel. Tressel's bread and butter was keeping all of the top talent in Ohio in-state, and attending Ohio State. Meyer, on the other hand, appears to have more of a national view to recruiting, which forces him to spread his resources across the country and opens up Ohio to invading schools. The two teams that have the chance to capitalize the most on this are Penn State and Michigan, each of which have already taken commitments from Ohio players.
Aside from Meyer, what about recruiting against Pitt and new coach Paul Chryst? Are the Panthers any competition for the Nittany Lions? What about the new staff at Rutgers? Can Penn State make up for the tougher competition in Ohio by hitting New Jersey a bit more? With the Randy Edsall experience going horribly in College Park, can Penn State go into D.C. more easily than before?
The other regional coaches are ones to keep an eye on, but shouldn't post too much of a problem, to be honest. Pitt will get its fair share of in-state talent, and they may even get some of PSU's top targets (see Dorian Johnson and Robert Foster's recruitment as ones that both PSU and Pitt are going head to head, along with other schools). But Penn State is still the top regional draw, and that won't change barring some unbelievable success in Pittsburgh or Piscataway. Penn State has always recruited Maryland well, has already received three commitments from New Jersey (Rutgers fans are NOT happy about this), and have already taken one of the top (if not THE top) commitment in-state.
The Nittany Lions have six commitments, four of them consensus four-stars. It's a great start. Obviously Penn State can't maintain that pace, but do you think the Lions can end up with more four-star or better players than three-star or lesser recruits?
It's difficult to say this early in the process, but if the apparent target list is any indication, Penn State is going after the elite talent regionally as well as some targeted players nationwide. Will they land all of the top players? No, and they'll almost certainly replace some of the high profile misses with safe, Plan B-type players. But the attention is on the highly recruited player, the one with Ohio State, Alabama, and Michigan offers. Seemingly gone are the days where PSU is battling some lesser known programs for recruits to fill out the class. The goal has shifted to filling all spots with very highly sought after players. The Class of 2013 is currently a borderline Top 10 class, and if Penn State lands some of the major names they are after, there is no reason to think this class can't or won't end up as one of the five best in the country.
With a seemingly easy schedule (no Michigan, no marquee non-conference game), how important is it for Penn State to cash in and post a big number in the win column? If it doesn't happen, how effective will O'Brien be with the standard "we didn't win as many as we want because you [recruit] are the missing piece and I am building something here"?
Going 14-0 and winning a BCS National Championship would sure go a long way, but I don't think going 6-6 will have too detrimental an effect on Coach O'Brien's recruiting efforts. As is typically the case, a new coaching staff will be given a couple of years by the fans and recruits to get the team together and operating at full efficiency. Look at Michigan: in three years, Rich Rodriguez managed to alienate many, win few, and lose the support of an entire fanbase; in just one year, Brady Hoke has reinvigorated that fanbase and led the team to a BCS win in his inaugural season. A BCS win would be nice for Coach O'Brien, and with the schedule playing out like it is (including missing two talented teams from Michigan and given Ohio State's bowl ban), it's not out of the question. But unless he goes 0-12 in his first year, I'm not sure whatever the on-field product produces will hinder the recruiting effort. In my opinion, it can only help, as recruits will now have game film of how they might be utilized in O'Brien's offense and/or defense.
Thanks again to Jeff Junstrom for this incredibly insightful look at Penn State recruiting. Make sure to Follow @EpicTripod