Coach Bill O'Brien: 'Great day' for Penn State

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Long before any player signed his name on paper and faxed it to Penn State, top recruits such as Adam Breneman, Christian Hackenberg and Garrett Sickels, listened to coach Bill O'Brien give his pitch at Lasch Football Building, five days after the NCAA announced sanctions against the university.

Breneman's father, Brian Breneman, described the meeting as an open discussion with parents, athletes and O'Brien chiming back and forth. O'Brien said he answered something like 50 questions. The exact content of those answers is shrouded in secrecy, though Hackenberg's father, Erick Hackenberg, said this summer that it involved the coach's future plan. As far as specifics, he said O'Brien asked them not to take the message out of the room.

When this meeting ended, parents, recruits and O'Brien went to separate rooms. Later, after talking amongst each other, the players returned to O'Brien. They told him they had made their decisions: They were all going to Florida.

Now, six months later, with 17 players part of his 2013 recruiting class, O'Brien can exhale, maybe even laugh if he feels the need. The drama has passed -- not just with that joke, but with this entire recruiting business. Most of his recruits stayed (five decommitted after the sanctions) and a few more signed on after the NCAA guaranteed none would play in the postseason for their first three seasons.

"I feel that overall this is a great day for Penn State," O'Brien said Wednesday.

Considering the circumstances, he has reason to express contentment. But considering traditional metrics, Penn State's class is not as exceptional.

Rivals.com ranks the Nittany Lions 43th in Division I-A, and Scout.com ranks them 45th. Big Ten Conference teams Ohio State (2), Michigan (6), Nebraska (17), Michigan State (39) and Indiana (41) rank ahead of Penn State in the Rivals rankings. Soon-to-be Big Ten teams Maryland (31) and Rutgers (42) also rank ahead of Penn State. A year go, Penn State's class was ranked 51st by Rivals.

O'Brien, as well as recruiting coordinator Charles London, discussed how they had to focus more given the lack of scholarships. In short, they felt like they couldn't miss. This meant that O'Brien, London and the other assistants attempted to recruit more thoroughly. They would delve further into the backgrounds and playing abilities of each target, checking to see if he was the right fit.

What is that fit? Well, O'Brien said he wants high character guys who are big and fast and can play in all types of weather.

And to get that group, the recruits themselves played at least a part in keeping this class together. When they learned of a new target, the players who already had committed would often text him, let him know their thoughts about Penn State and why they wanted him on the team. Breneman said 12 of the committed players were once on a phone call at the same time, just talking about life.

"We're good friends," Breneman said before his enrollment. "Especially the week the sanctions came out, we were talking each night on the phone."

O'Brien, as one would predict, said positive things about the players he signed. He said Hackenberg would be in the running for a starting job. He said offensive tackle Andrew Nelson had ideal size. He said linebacker Zayd Issah had what it took to fit in with Penn State's tradition at that position. He said his class would have some "sleeper" players.

But he also was sure not to predict too much. This is Penn State, where circumstances can change in a hurry.

"Time will tell about how good they all end up being," O'Brien said. "You never really know until they start playing for you."

NOTE -- Central Florida will play Penn State Sept. 14 at Beaver Stadium to complete the 2013 schedule. Virginia recently backed out of the date but might reschedule the matchup in the future. Penn State is discussing plans to play Central Florida in 2014 or 2015 in Orlando, Fla. Central Florida is coached by George O'Leary, whom O'Brien worked under at Georgia Tech from 1995-2001.

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Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @mdent05.


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