Penn State has always been a place where players from Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey dreamed of attending. Smack dab in the middle of central Pa., Happy Valley is rife with regional athletes from less than 300 miles away.
But coach Bill O’Brien said Tuesday that the coaching staff is working to expand its geographic reign to Ohio — a state the previous staff hadn’t often tapped into. And after reeling in three southern players in his 2013 recruiting class, the second year head coach said the South would be a region the staff hopes to continue rigorously recruiting in.
Geographically speaking, it’s evident O’Brien has expanded Penn State’s reach in just the two years the recruiter has been in Happy Valley. This week, Massachusetts running back Johnathan Thomas verbally committed to Penn State, hailing from a state where Joe Paterno’s staff had rarely recruited in.
Similarly, the 2014 class holds commitments from De’Andre Thompkins, of Swansboro, N. C.; and Michael O’Connor, a four-star quarterback from Bradenton, Fla. O’Brien and his staff also successfully signed Parker Cothren of Alabama, Steven Bench and Kasey Gaines of Georgia and Neiko Robinson of Florida for the 2012 and 2013 classes.
“We’ll continue to recruit in the Deep South, in the South, because we have connections down there,” O’Brien said after National Signing Day in February. “…That gives us a pretty good, diverse mix of guys when you look at the geography of our roster. We have a decent number of guys from the South on our roster, the bulk of the guys are from the Northeast.”
The reasons behind the extension are obvious. Thomas went to the same high school as O’Brien, who has said himself that the staff needs to do a better job recruiting in New England. O’Brien also spent six years at Georgia Tech and has two assistants in Mac McWhorter and Anthony Midget who have roots in the South.
Despite losing former defensive coordinator Ted Roof — who has a solid presence in the South — to Georgia Tech, O’Brien said the staff would continue to search for talented athletes south of Maryland and Virginia.
The South is a hotbed for football talent, evidenced by the SEC’s dominance in the college football realm, but Paterno’s staff didn’t tap into the region. Between 2007 and 2011, Penn State signed only six athletes from the Deep South, including Patrick and Michael Mauti who came to Happy Valley to attend their father's alma mater.
The 2011 and 2012 classes didn’t include one player who committed to Paterno that was from south of Tennessee.
There’s still obvious problems with the model. Attempting to pull southern athletes to a school in the North is difficult. Of Penn State’s three southern signees in the 2013 class, only Cothren had scholarship offers from SEC schools.
Only time will tell if O’Brien’s model of a broader recruiting realm geographically will translate to on-field success. But the longer O’Brien sticks around, the better of a chance that translation could happen.
Anna Orso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 814-865-1828. Follow her on Twitter at @anna_orso.