Old-school JoePa, new-school Skype woo top recruits
A photo taken from Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno's Twitter account shows Joe Paterno working at his computer. The veteran coach uses web tools such as Skype to communicate with potential football recruits.
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State's Joe Paterno hasn't hit the road to visit a high school prospect in more than 3 1/2 years.
But, in recent months, the 84-year-old Hall of Fame coach's recruiting tactics have taken a different route -- the Internet highway.
Paterno, who has not exactly embraced new technology through the years, has turned to Skype, a video-conferencing application that allows him to talk with recruits in their homes using webcams.
He has chatted with a select number of highly regarded prospects on the oversized monitor in his office.
Camren Williams, a four-star linebacker from Massachusetts who has made a verbal commitment to play for the Nittany Lions in 2012, said it was strange seeing Paterno on Skype for the first time earlier this spring.
"It was pretty surreal," Williams said. "There he was on the video all by himself talking to me and Armani [Reeves]. Although it seemed strange, it was pretty cool."
Williams, whose father, Brent, was a standout defensive lineman for the New England Patriots, already had committed to Penn State by the time he connected with Paterno on Skype.
Paterno, though, was trying to convince Reeves, Williams' best friend and high school teammate, to commit. Reeves, a four-star wide receiver/defensive back and cousin of former NBA star Charles Barkley, gave his pledge to the Nittany Lions two weeks ago.
Two days before Reeves' announcement, Penn State received commitments a few hours apart from five-star defensive lineman Tommy Schutt from Illinois and four-star wide receiver Eugene Lewis from Pennsylvania.
The 2012 class, ranked 11th nationally by Scout.com and Rivals.com, also includes two three-star prospects from the WPIAL -- tight end/linebacker J.P. Holtz, from Shaler High School; and tight end Jesse James, from South Allegheny.
Players can't sign binding letters of intent with any school until Feb. 1.
"I think Joe's been as involved lately, if not more involved, in recruiting than he ever has," said Penn State recruiting coordinator Mike McQueary "He's been using Skype and talking to kids.
"He's on our backs about us getting a great class, and certainly that helps."
It's debatable whether Skype is as effective as an in-home visit from Paterno, who has not gone on the road to talk to a prospect since he visited with Terrelle Pryor in late January 2008 at Jeannette High School.
"I don't think I'll ever get used to [Skype]," Paterno said.
Williams does believe Penn State is benefiting from its foray into social media.
"They're on Skype and Facebook, which is new technology for an old-school program, so to speak," Williams said. "I think it shows recruits that they're really still on top of things."
Paterno, entering the final year of a three-year contract extension he signed in 2008, told Williams and Reeves he wanted to coach six more years. But that was before he was injured in a collision with wide receiver Devon Smith earlier this month at practice.
Even so, many expect Paterno to continue to patrol the sideline for a few more seasons.
"It's going to be fun with or without JoePa there, but we all hope he will be there," Reeves said.
Holtz, who committed July 22, has visited Penn State's campus five or six times and met with Paterno once in person this spring.
"It will definitely be an honor to be able to play for coach Paterno -- he's a legend -- but whether he's going to be there in four or five years when I graduate [from college] was not really a factor in my decision," Holtz said.
"I'm looking forward to getting a really good education, plus it is a very good football program."
Seven of the 17 players already committed to the class of 2012, which will range between 23 and 25 players, carry four-star or better ratings.
The other four-star recruits are Colorado guard Joey O'Connor, Pennsylvania offensive tackle J.J. Denman and Maryland defensive end Brent Wilkerson.
"I think it's a phenomenal class so far," said Bob Lichtenfels, a regional recruiting coordinator for Scout.com. "Obviously, Penn State needed help along the offensive line, and they are doing well there with Denman and O'Connor."
Tom Lemming, a national recruiting expert for CBS Sports Network, has Penn State's class ranked in his unofficial top 10. A year ago at this time, the Nittany Lions had just four verbal commitments for 2011.
"They're having a great year this year, no doubt," Lemming said. "That seems to be their pattern -- one good year, one bad year. They have been doing that the last six years or so.
"It's nice to see them right back in the mix again with the top guys around the country. I think Schutt is a real steal for them. He's a great talent."
Penn State remains in the running for two five-star recruits, Pennsylvania defensive end Noah Spence and New York defensive tackle Jarron Jones. Jones withdrew his prior verbal commitment to the Nittany Lions last month but still has them high on his list.
Four-star prospects prominent on Penn State's radar include New Jersey quarterback/defensive back Devin Fuller, Jeannette safety Demetrious Cox, Ohio running back William Mahone and Florida tight end Kent Taylor.
"The rankings are very, very overblown," said McQueary, who has been Penn State's recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach since 2004. "I know people don't believe us when we say that.
"A couple years ago, I was listening to [former NFL coach] Bill Parcells on a talk show, and he said, 'I don't care on the first day of training camp if I have a first-round draft pick out there. I don't talk myself into thinking he's a first-rounder. Once they get there, I trust my own eyes from that point on.'
"I think that's what you have to do in the evaluation process. Don't let someone else's eyes tell you who they are or what they are, or if they fit your program. Trust your own eyes."
McQueary said Penn State's recruiting success has been a staff effort.
"We've redesigned our own recruiting office in the last year," McQueary said. "We hired a guy in there, Bill Kavanaugh, to help me out, and we hired a staff assistant. So, instead of one guy doing the job all the time, it's been a partnership, a new team, with fresh ideas."
First Published August 26, 2011 12:00 am