Give a lot of credit to the national cottage industry that high school football scouting has become. During the last decade, it has done a masterful job of making bank simply by catering to the same childlike reflex that made Poke’mon cards a big deal in the 1990s.
See, kids love to collect stuff. Kids also grow up, and rather than live with the social stigma attached to collecting children’s trading cards as adults, some gravitate toward the more socially accepted practice of obsessing over where 17-year-old high school athletes want to play college football. The massive networks that sites such as Rivals.com, 247sports.com and Scout.com have established are supported by grown men and women willing to shell out $9.99 a month for updates on whether Johnny Fivestar thought ol’ Tech or State U was cool when he visited. Let that sink in.
That extensive coverage, while executed admirably by some of the best journalists I know, can lead some to the false impression that a single recruiting class will make or break a football program.
With that in mind, I don’t take it lightly when I say that Penn State’s 2013 recruiting class, signed yesterday, really was a make-or-break class — and Coach Bill O’Brien and Co. did a pretty good job of making it.
The NCAA tried to nuke the program with sanctions last summer, but in the end, that did little to deter 17 young men — five already enrolled in classes here — from faxing in letters of intent to spend their college careers in Happy Valley. Among them are some fairly well-regarded prospects that the NCAA was probably expecting to head elsewhere.
But they didn’t, and the result is a class that most major recruiting services rank in the top 40, and in some cases top 25, nationally.
Most years, those rankings wouldn’t mean a whole lot to me. I’ve never seen any of these kids play anywhere other than a grainy YouTube clip, so like most, I’d be lying if I said I know how this group will translate its hype to the field years down the line. I’m pretty confident that the Nittany Lions’ future records will be determined more by how O’Brien and this staff mold this talent than obtain it.
That said, the consensus that the class belongs in the same conversation as most of Penn State’s Big Ten foes sends the message that this program is still open for business. These signings set a tone for years to come that while scholarship reductions will hamper the depth of talent the Lions can gather, they won’t hurt the quality of it.
And if we learned anything from a season in which Penn State was competitive after defections left it closer to the sanction-imposed scholarship limit of 65 than the standard allotment of 85, it’s that quality is much more important than quantity.
Penn State isn’t quite out of the woods yet, but Tuesday represented a big step toward avoiding the apocalyptic fate many were predicting in the summer. The momentum is building, and whether fans are at peace with the sanctions or not, that’s something everyone can get excited about.