The reality is crippling, mind-boggling, and capable of at least temporarily suppressing even one of the most storied programs in college football.
Penn State, in addition to the infamous postseason ban, faces a severe decrease in the maximum number of scholarships it is allowed to hand out in future seasons.
And the ramifications of the reduction could be the most extreme of all. Unless, of course, the Nittany Lions’ program can combat that reality with an unconventional recipe — consistently depending on non-scholarship players.
Due to the NCAA sanctions, the Lions will be limited to 15 scholarships per incoming recruiting class (as opposed to the typical 25) for four seasons, starting in 2013. Coach Bill O’Brien has said the key to overcoming this will be an added emphasis on the team’s walk-on (or as he calls it, ‘run-on’) program, with so many openings in upcoming recruiting classes.
However, the long road to the return of an 85-scholarship roster hasn’t even truly begun and the future remains cloudy with a high chance of adverse effects to the program.
A whole new ball game
Although Penn State will return to the typical 85-scholarship roster in 2018, the program will not boast a team made up of four traditionally-recruited, 25-scholarship, classes until 2020.
To put that into perspective, O’Brien will be 50 when the recruiting scenario fully returns to normal and he would be entering the final year of his nine-year contract.
What occurs in between will likely be more affected by non-scholarship players than any stretch in the program’s recent history.
Brian Dohn, a recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said the restrictions will force the Lions’ coaching staff to target high-quality walk-ons more aggressively than it ever has.
“If you’re going to get the real quality walk-ons, you’re going to have to entice kids to walk on who may have offers from maybe some MAC schools, some of the smaller conferences, the non-BCS conferences that people know about,” Dohn said.
Needless to say, he said succeeding in this task is much easier said than done.
The analyst said asking a Big Ten program to compete under these restrictions may turn out to be “impossible.”
“We have to see what Bill O’Brien does,” Dohn said. “He’s going to have to sit in a living room with the [recruit] and say, ‘Forget the $150,000 scholarship, come play for us. And pay to play.’ ”
Of course, Dohn said he understands the excellent reputation of Penn State and that O’Brien will likely offer a respectable pitch to these high schoolers. However, he said he believes being able to convince higher-caliber players to join the program without a scholarship will rarely happen, if ever.
As a result, Dohn said he expects the coaching staff to have to settle for less talented players to round out its recruiting classes. He added that these players will likely be thrown into the fire against top-tier Division I talent at some point in their careers, which will add focus on how well the staff is able to maximize their talent.
“Penn State is going to go get a walk on, who then is going to be competing against the kids from Michigan and Ohio State or even Indiana, who are good enough to get a scholarship,” Dohn said. “Then you’re talking about, ‘Is this kid talented enough?’ and ‘Can the coaching staff develop that kid enough to be good?’ ”
Down but not out
When recruit Adam Breneman, one of the top-ranked tight end prospects in the country in the class of 2013, first heard word of the sanctions, he immediately pointed out the reduced scholarships as the most crushing blow.
“When I first heard, my reaction was, ‘Well, how are we going to compete?’ ” Breneman said.
“But the more I talked to coach O’Brien, the more I realized I don’t think there’s anything that can stop this coaching staff, stop this program.”
Not only has the first-year coach settled worries of current recruits, but he’s also set the stage for the unique recruiting ploys he will likely be utilizing to attract those who haven’t committed.
O’Brien has often preached the importance of “run-ons” both in the present and future of the program. He has shown he understands a refined focus will be necessary in order to field a formidable team.
Obviously, the battle is far from over, but O’Brien said the reaction from potential walk-ons so far has been very positive, especially within the state.
“There’s a lot of good football players in Pennsylvania that are good students that, like a Matt McGloin, grew up wanting to play for Penn State and were going to come here no matter what,” O’Brien said. “We feel like we’ve had a great response to that and hopefully that bodes well for the future.”
Potential walk-ons need look no further than McGloin to see a player who started in their shoes and has gone on to flourish as a full-time starter. The fifth-year senior was recently named a candidate for the Burlsworth Trophy, an award given to the nation’s most outstanding player who started his career as a walk-on.
Breneman said he has faith in the Lions’ coaches to uncover the diamond-in-the-rough-type players and subsequently turn them into top-level talent under their instruction.
Furthermore, the recruit said he even expects recruits receiving scholarships offers elsewhere to realize how difficult it is to say no to Happy Valley.
“I think these guys are going to see that being a walk-on here is better than being a scholarship player almost anywhere else,” Breneman said.
O’Brien’s attitude paying off
Ryan Herr, Breneman’s best friend from a neighboring high school, is very familiar with the state of the Lions’ recruiting — especially because he has been offered a preferred walk-on position with the team, himself.
Though he has not yet made his final decision, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound receiver represents the new generation of potential Penn State walk-ons, who understand the importance of the role they could provide to the team.
“I think the walk-ons are very important for the next four recruiting class just because they lost 10 scholarships,” Herr said. “They’re going to need good athletes to come in.”
Herr said besides possibly running track at another school, he isn’t considering many other options right now. He said it’s extremely hard to pass up an opportunity like playing for O’Brien at Penn State, “even if it’s just a walk-on opportunity.”
Meanwhile, some transfer students, such as junior Shane Glacken, are also trying their hand at joining the squad in a walk-on capacity.
Glacken previously played tight end at East Stroudsburg and said after a open-door walk-on meeting at the Lasch Building on Tuesday that it seems like the team will be accepting more walk-ons for next season.
He added that the prospective players know about O’Brien’s welcoming attitude toward them, and they don’t for granted.
“It motivates us to work harder and shows that there’s a greater chance for us to make the team,” Glacken said.
And as Breneman puts it, the most promising aspect of Penn State’s walk-on program — and the reason he believes it will continue to thrive — is players’ blue-collar attitude.
“Most of the time, they’re hard-working guys that aren’t playing football for the glory,” Breneman said. “They’re playing because they just love the game of football and they want to compete with Penn State football teams.”