Fourteen months ago, the Penn State football program was going through the most uncertain time in its history.
NCAA sanctions allowed players to transfer freely without sitting out a season, and coach Bill O’Brien was tasked with recruiting his own guys. Some left, but most stayed, and at the time, the first-year coach hoped it would create a bond on and off the field.
“I feel good about our cohesiveness. I think we’ve come together as a team very well,” O’Brien said in August of 2012. “There is a lot of camaraderie. These guys are working hard. There is unity and I feel really good about where they’re at right now.”
Now, Penn State’s sanctions have been modified, and the team will have its scholarships back in full by 2016 as opposed to 2019. What a difference a year can make.
Former fullback Michael Zordich, along with linebacker Michael Mauti and others, declared their allegiance to the program shortly after the NCAA handed down its punishment. They worked closely with O’Brien to keep the team together, and for the most part, it worked.
“Not only did they stick out that one year, but they got another two or three more years and helped the entire program bounce back,” Zordich said Tuesday of his teammates who stayed. “They helped keep everything together.”
Now, after Tuesday’s news, there’s more certainty in Happy Valley. O’Brien and Co. are focused on the task at hand, a game next Saturday at Indiana, but at least to some degree, it’s reassuring to the players moving forward.
“We did stick it out,” kicker Sam Ficken said. “That’s a testament to the courage of this team and how we all fought through it. We’re coming out as better players and better people.”
But those who didn’t stick it out found other homes all across the country. With the exception of Paul Jones and Shawney Kersey, each of these players left before training camp last August.
Here’s what they’re up to today, a month into the 2013 college football season.
RB Silas Redd: USC
Redd had a fine 2012, rushing for 905 yards (5.4 per carry) and nine touchdowns. But the Trojans’ season was anything but fine considering their expectations. Lane Kiffin’s bunch went 7-6 after opening the season as a national title contender.
This year, Redd hasn’t played a down. He tore his meniscus in the spring and his return has been anticipated, but delayed, so far in 2013.
“Redd has been either good or injured in Los Angeles,” said James Santelli, the Associate Sports Director for Annenberg TV News. “While he was expected to be a workhorse back when he came to SC, various injuries last season limited his playing time and spring knee surgery have kept him out ever since. When he returns, he would likely share time with Tre Madden and Justin Davis, who have been among the lone bright spots on the Trojans’ stagnant offense.”
K/P Anthony Fera: Texas
Fera transferred to Texas in part because his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and he wanted to be closer to her. At this time last season, Fera was considered by many to be Penn State’s biggest loss because of Ficken’s 1-for-5 showing against Virginia, but Ficken is now well past that.
Fera was a second-team All-Big Ten selection as a kicker for Penn State in 2011. So far this season at Texas — after missing four games with a groin injury last season — he’s hit 4-of-5 field goals and ranks 31st nationally in punting average at 43.55 yards per punt.
He was expected to immediately replace current Baltimore Raven Justin Tucker shortly after he arrived at Texas, but went just 2-of-4 in 2012 and missed a 41-yard try in the fourth quarter of a 48-45 loss to West Virginia. Texas relied on two freshman kickers for most of the season and didn’t hit a field goal over 40 yards all year.
“He’s a guy they were counting on last year and that groin just wouldn’t allow him to do it,” said Chip Brown, who covers the Longhorns for Orangebloods.com. “They’re definitely counting on him this year, as well, and he’s been good.”
QB Rob Bolden: LSU
Bolden failed to impress at Penn State despite being highly sought after in high school — No. 2 among dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation by Rivals.com. After two seasons with little improvement, Bolden asked O’Brien for a transfer release even before the sanctions were announced.
He redshirted at LSU as a junior last season and isn’t among the top three signal callers on the Tigers’ depth chart with a sophomore and freshman ahead of him.
Randy Rosetta, who covers LSU for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, said he believed Bolden was brought in to push last season’s presumed starter Zach Mettenberger, because LSU didn’t have a quarterback with game experience at that time. Now, with a freshman backing up Mettenberger, Bolden doesn’t figure to ever see the field.
“Les Miles, as a coach, is quick to praise scout team guys for their contributions during the week,” Rosetta said. “I don’t remember him ever mentioning [Bolden].”
LB: Khairi Fortt: California
Fortt, now a redshirt junior, missed all of 2012 with a knee injury after making 33 tackles for Penn State as a rotational linebacker in 2011. This year, he’s made a team-high 25 tackles, 2.5 for loss, and half a sack as the Golden Bears’ starting middle linebacker.
“While Fortt leads the team in tackles, the team he plays for also ranks 123rd in the nation in total defense,” said Sean Wagner-McGough, a football beat writer for the Daily Californian. “The Cal defense hasn’t been able to stop anyone thus far, even FCS Portland State. Fortt isn’t part of the problem — he is arguably Cal’s top defensive player that is healthy. At the same time, he clearly isn’t the solution to all of Cal’s defensive woes.”
WR Justin Brown: Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad by way of Oklahoma
Brown was supposed to be Matt McGloin’s top returning target in 2012 before leaving for Oklahoma, where he had a productive senior season. He caught 73 balls for 879 yards and five scores, and the Steelers selected him in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
Brown lost his roster spot to former Penn State wide receiver Derek Moye, though, and was signed to the practice squad before the season after clearing waivers.
QB Paul Jones: Robert Morris
Jones struggled academically during his first two years at Penn State and has taken a windy road to Robert Morris.
Rivals.com ranked Jones as the No. 8 pro-style quarterback in the nation for the class of 2010, but the McKees Rocks, Pa., native never flourished like many hoped he would. Instead, coach Bill O’Brien made him a tight end, and after two games there in 2012, Jones left the program because he still wanted to be a quarterback. He played intramural football for the rest of the semester before announcing he’d head to Moon Township, Pa., to continue his career.
Jones is the starting quarterback at FCS Robert Morris, but has posted less than impressive numbers through three games this season. He’s completed just 35-of-78 passes (44.9 percent) for 483 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions.
WR Shawney Kersey: Marshall
Kersey left two games into last season despite being the No. 2 receiver on Penn State’s depth chart. He wound up at Marshall in January, joining Derrick Thomas and Devon Smith, who had left Penn State before the sanctions were announced.
One game into Marshall’s 2013 season, Kersey left the Thundering Herd. He was buried on the preseason depth chart and didn’t appear in the team’s season-opening win over Miami of Ohio.
“When you bring a guy in with one year left from a Big Ten school, you assume he’s going to contribute,” said Derek Redd, who covers Marshall for the Charleston Daily Mail. “He never became what they were hoping he’d become. Some drops and stuff like that. He just wasn’t moving himself into that rotation and it just didn’t happen.”
DT Jamil Pollard: Rutgers
Pollard left State College before he ever hit the practice field. He landed closer to home at Rutgers, but didn’t appear on the team’s preseason depth chart as a sophomore and hasn’t touched the field. He was the No. 20 defensive tackle prospect in the nation, according to Rivals.com, coming out of high school.
OT Ryan Nowicki: Northern Arizona by way of Illinois
After Illinois coach Tim Beckman infamously hounded Penn State players on campus in July of 2012, he landed just one player: Nowicki. A year later, Beckman is left with exactly what he started.
Nowicki, an Arizona native, is now a Northern Arizona Lumberjack. He’s appeared in three games so far this season without a start and was eligible to play immediately because he transferred from Illinois to an FCS school.
TE Kevin Haplea: Florida State
Haplea caught three balls for 15 yards and a score in his first season at Florida State, but tore his ACL in June and will miss all of 2013. He’ll apply for a medical redshirt and should be eligible to return as a senior in 2014. He was used mostly as a blocking tight end last season.
“It’s unfortunate for Kevin,” Seminoles’ coach Jimbo Fisher said after the injury. “He had a great spring and was going to be a big part of our offense this season.”
FS Tim Buckley: N.C. State
Buckley returned to his home state after winning Penn State’s backup free safety job in 2012 spring practice. He appeared in 11 games, mostly on special teams, for the Wolfpack last season and has made three tackles in 2013 as the backup strong safety.
Steven Petrella can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @steve_petrella.