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 the 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, kids 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, the parents, the 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 de-committed 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 on Wednesday.
Considering the circumstances, he has reason to express contentment. But considering traditional metrics, Penn State's class is not as exceptional.
Rivals ranks the Nittany Lions 44th in the country, and Scout ranks them 40th. Big Ten teams Ohio State (1), Michigan (6), Nebraska (18), Wisconsin (39), Michigan State (39) and Indiana (42) rank ahead of Penn State in the Rivals rankings. Soon-to-be Big Ten teams Maryland and Rutgers also rank ahead. Last year, Penn State's class was ranked 51st by Rivals.
"Certainly we lost some kids because of sanctions," O'Brien said. "There's no question about it. At the end of the day all I'm concerned about are the guys that are here. What we talk about as a staff all the time is we're not about collecting talent. We're about building a team."
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.
"They're all important, when I look at this list of guys. ...Within the walls of this football building all of these guys were extremely important to our football program and to our university. They committed to us during what a lot of people think is a tough time for Penn State. We don't see it that way. We can't wait tot play next year."
Additionally, he said he expected 15 to 20 walk-ons to be part of the team in the fall and said that some of them would enroll for the summer session of classes. Because of NCAA constraints, Penn State can give out only 15 scholarships per season and can have only 65 scholarships total starting in 2014, meaning the walk-on program will increase in importance.