Bill O’Brien called Wednesday “a great day for Penn State.”
Wednesday, which fell about six-and-a-half months after Penn State was hit with NCAA sanctions that many thought would cripple the team’s recruiting prowess, was National Signing Day.
Twelve recruits — including five-star quarterback Christian Hackenberg — made their verbal commitments to Penn State official, as they faxed their National Letters of Intent to Happy Valley. The addition of the 12 players, along with five early enrollees who have been on campus since January, brings the Nittany Lions’ 2013 class total to 17, and it’s a group O’Brien praised at a press conference.
“We feel really positive about this class for many reasons,” O’Brien said. “…What we want here eventually is definitely a smart team, a high-character team, a big, fast, physical football team that can play in all types of weather. And I think we’ve done that with this recruiting class.”
As part of the NCAA’s penalties, the Lions were stripped of 10 scholarships for the 2013 season and will have their roster capped at 75 scholarship players. The team also has three seasons remaining on a four-year postseason ban, so O’Brien had to sell a program to kids in the 2013 class who won’t be able to play in a bowl game for their first three years in the program.
But even with all of these factors stacked against Penn State, the team still managed to put together a recruiting class that Scout.com, Rivals.com and ESPN.com all ranked among the nation’s 50 best.
“We lost some kids because of sanctions, I mean there’s no question about it,” O’Brien said. “I’m not going to sit up here and tell you that the sanctions didn’t play a factor in some of the guys we set out to recruit. But at the end of the day, all I’m concerned about are the guys that are here. What we talk about all the time as a staff is we’re not about collecting talent, we’re about building a team.”
O’Brien noted his staff is taking some extra steps to work with the scholarship reductions and he spoke highly of the team’s non-scholarship (“run-on”) program. Meanwhile, running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Charles London said with the limited number of scholarships to offer, it’s vital to not misjudge recruits.
“We just have to make sure the kids here are the right fit for Penn State,” London said. “Maybe another school that can sign 25 kids, they can afford to miss on four or five kids. We don’t have that luxury. Maybe we go the extra mile, check with an extra teacher in school, do something like that to make sure this kid is what we’re looking for.”
Hackenberg was the Lions’ biggest addition on signing day. A 6-foot-3, 215-pound Palmyra, Va., Hackenberg was rated as a five-star prospect and the second-best signal-caller in the 2013 class by Scout.com.
O’Brien noted Hackenberg has a strong and accurate arm, but the coach said there is a lot of work that can be done before the quarterback steps on campus in the summer.
“The system we run here at Penn State is not the simplest system in the world to learn for a quarterback,” O’Brien said. “So, [Hackenberg is] going to have to begin to study and understand what it takes to play quarterback at this level, which is what we talked about a lot in the recruiting process.”
Hackenberg isn’t the only five-star recruit in Penn State’s bunch, as Scout.com also gave tight end Adam Breneman (an early enrollee) its top rating. The Lions have eight offensive players and nine defenders in their 2013 class, and 12 players in the group were rated as three-stars or better by Scout.
And while fans may take solace in knowing their team landed highly touted players, O’Brien said ratings don’t matter to him.
“Penn State is a very unique, special place to play college football and so I don’t care about stars and rankings,” O’Brien said. “Someone came running into the office this morning and said ‘Hey, we’re the fourth-ranked team in the Big Ten in recruiting.’ Who cares? Who are one, two and three? Who knows? I don’t know. I just know I feel good about the players we got here in this class.”