O'Brien's Penn State staff eyes new, fertile ground

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- You should listen to the answering machine at Hazel Green High School in Alabama. In a voice as Southern and serene as the name "Hazel Green," a man tells every caller, "We're having a great day," before launching into a series of extensions you might want to dial. It's a wonderful pleasantry to hear on a predictably gray State College day.

You should also listen to the voice of Hazel Green football coach Matt Putnam. He speaks with a friendly accent not heard too often up here as he discusses recent Penn State football recruit Parker Cothren, a defensive end from his team. He is confident Cothren will succeed at the next level.

"They stole one away from the South," he said of Penn State, which received a signed letter of intent from Cothren last month.

Putnam has no problem saying his school in Hazel Green, Ala., near Huntsville, is more than happy to cater to talent-seeking Northern visitors. And he thinks other high schools will be excited to deal with Penn State, too.

"Southern hospitality," he said.

The South is starting to matter for Penn State.

The Nittany Lions signed three Southerners in the 2013 recruiting class: Cothren, defensive back Neiko Robinson (Bratt, Fla.) and defensive back Kasey Gaines ( Loganville, Ga.). They will join quarterback Steven Bench (Bainbridge, Ga.), who will be a sophomore.

It's a significant difference from the final years of coach Joe Paterno. Take away the Mauti brothers (Patrick and Michael) -- Louisianans who followed their father's footsteps to Penn State -- and the Nittany Lions had four players from Deep South states from 2007 to 2011.

Why this 2013 influx is happening is pretty clear -- it has to do with the man in charge. Bill O'Brien was born and raised in New England and spent much of his career in the East, but he also spent six years in the South at Georgia Tech. At Penn State, he armed his staff with two Southern-rooted assistants in Mac McWhorter and Ted Roof. When Roof left in January, he replaced him with another Southerner, Anthony Midget, who coached at high schools in Florida and college at Georgia State.

On national signing day, O'Brien said he would continue to primarily recruit from the 300-mile radius outside of State College, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, New York and Washington. But he wanted a presence in the South, too.

Why?.

In Paterno's last few years as a coach, his staff gained a reputation for not recruiting as hard as those from most other schools did. They relied on prestige and neglected to engage in the recruiting tactics necessary to woo kids who now beg for near-constant attention from collegiate suitors.

"The former staff was not nearly as active in getting out and recruiting kids," said Brian Dohn, the northeast recruiting analyst for Scout. "Coach Paterno wasn't making a lot of visits."

That strategy, or lack thereof, kept Penn State ingratiated in Central Pennsylvania, but the reverence didn't extend too far beyond the state's borders and certainly not in the South. The South is a different beast, particularly obsessed with and adept at football. Rivals tracks the number of recruits from each state who sign with Division I schools and Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana had the highest percentages of Division I football signees in 2012.

The 300-mile radius that O'Brien spoke about ranks high, too, with Maryland/District of Columbia and Pennsylvania among the top 10 areas for producing Division I recruits, but Dohn points out that the quality of their prospects doesn't equate. From a talent standpoint, he said Pennsylvania in particular is lagging. Adding talent from outside the 300-mile radius is necessary, although cracking the South isn't easy.

"The main thing is having the time to build those relationships," said Tom Fallaw, Bench's coach at Cairo High School. "It's making that time to come watch him on the day that you have to visit."

Penn State started recruiting Bench after a mutual connection from his high school tipped off Penn State to his video. Kasey Gaines came to be recruited in similar fashion. Roof had connections with the coaching staff at Gaines' school, Grayson High, and was there for a visit. He saw film of Gaines, which led to a meeting, which led to Gaines visiting Penn State for a camp, which eventually led to a scholarship offer.

Gaines said he never would have given Penn State a thought if they hadn't sought him. Kids in the South dream of playing in the SEC, he said. A school like Penn State has to swoop down and change their minds.

"I'm excited about it," he said. "I'm excited for something new."

How successful can Penn State be in the South? Beating out Maryland or Virginia for a player is different than convincing a top recruit to bypass Alabama, Auburn, Georgia or Florida for a school hundreds of miles away. Chad Simmons, the Southern recruiting coordinator for Scout, said he couldn't think of a far-away program that could consistently get a couple of blue-chip southerners or a class of five to six less-decorated southern recruits, though he said Urban Meyer might have the ability to pull it off at Ohio State.

None of Penn State's three Southern signees this year were highly prized by the SEC powers. Cothren comes the closest. Auburn, after initially seeking him as an offensive lineman, offered him a defensive position late in the recruiting process. Putnam said an earlier defensive offer could have convinced Cothren to stay home.

Such is the process of recruiting in the South. It will require connections, timing and a number of variables for everything to go right, but sometimes it will.

"It is definitely worth any school at some point in the cycle to send coaches down to the South to try and really brand their school," Simmons said.

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


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