When the Penn State football program was hit with NCAA sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal late last July, many wondered if first-year head coach Bill O'Brien would be able to convince any top high school prospects to sign with the Nittany Lions for their Class of 2013.
At the very least, the run-up to signing day figured to be an uneasy time for O'Brien and his staff, as they waited for the prospects who did commit to Penn State to make it official by actually signing their Letters of Intent.
Well, six months later, and with Wednesday's signing day here, it turns out predictions of gloom and doom for PSU recruiting were off the mark. Same goes for the line of thinking that suggested this would be a time of high drama as O’Brien and his staff waited for prospects to sign.
The Class of 2013 includes 17 members. Five scholarship players — including All-American tight end Adam Breneman (Camp Hill, Pa.) and junior college quarterback Tyler Ferguson (Bakersfield, Calif.) — enrolled at Penn State in early January and are already taking classes. They need not sign Letters of Intent.
A dozen more — including FOX Sports NEXT five-star quarterback Christian Hackenberg (Fork Union, Va.) — signed Wednesday. No last-second changes of heart happened.
"This is a great day for Penn State and I think it proves a lot of things about Penn State," O’Brien said. "We signed a lot of kids who committed to us and stayed committed to us when they could have gone elsewhere."
O’Brien went on to credit his predecessor, Hall of Famer Joe Paterno, for establishing a strong football foundation at Penn State. Paterno, who died of lung cancer just over a year ago, was fired in November of 2012, shortly after the Sandusky scandal broke.
"[The class] says a lot about the tradition and history of Penn State — the foundation Coach Paterno built here," O’Brien said. "We're trying to keep that going."
This is the first Penn State class for which O’Brien and his staff are completely responsible. It is drawing strong reviews from recruiting analysts.
While fans wait to see which teams have the best classes and are ready to give kudos to those coaches, I think the recruiting story of the year is what Penn State did, FOX Sports NEXT East recruiting analyst Brian Dohn said. With what could have been crippling sanctions for the class, Bill O'Brien held it together and still has one of the strongest groups in the Big Ten. He and his staff did a remarkable job of building such strong relationships with kids, they were able to withstand something no one had seen before.
Hackenberg, who committed to PSU last February, was anxious to put pen to paper after a long year.
It's more of a relief, he said. Even though I've been committed for almost a year, it feels like it's been three years, with everything that's gone on. I'm really relieved with being able to get this over with, and officially be a Nittany Lion.
The NCAA sanctions limit Penn State to 15 scholarship spots for the Class of 2013 (as opposed to the normal limit of 25). But the five members who enrolled in January can count against the Class of 2012, which is how the Lions were able to land 17 players.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Penn State's class was ranked No. 40 nationally and No. 7 in the Big Ten by FOX Sports NEXT. However, when looking strictly at the quality of prospects signed, the Lions rate even better. The average star ranking for the PSU prospects is 3.06, which places the program 28th in the nation and fourth in the conference.
In the weeks after the NCAA sanctions came down, six prospects who had committed to Penn State pulled their pledges (or de-committed). The best of the bunch was FOX Sports NEXT four-star offensive lineman Dorian Johnson (Belle Vernon, Pa.), who is expected to sign with Pitt Wednesday.
"Certainly we lost some kids because of the sanctions, there's no question about that," O’Brien said.
But one of the six, Pennsylvania four-star linebacker prospect Zayd Issah, eventually re-committed to the Lions in early December -- not long after PSU wrapped up what was considered an improbable 8-4 season.
In the meantime, the two most high-profile members of the class — Breneman and Hackenberg -— stuck to their commitments throughout. Hackenberg said the things that initially drew him to Penn State never changed, even after a crazy summer of 2012 that included Sandusky's trial (and conviction), the publishing of the scathing Freeh Report on PSU's handling of the scandal and the announcement of the NCAA sanctions.
Just being a 17-year-old kid, there's a lot of emotions, he said. But there's a group of people — the guys who are in this class with me, my parents, my coaches — who I rely on. And we really sort of made a decision that it's still a great fit for me. That's sort of how I approached this whole recruiting process. It's a school that's a perfect fit for me. Not only from a football standpoint, but academically.
The NCAA sanctions also included a four-year bowl ban that began with the 2012 season. With no postseason game to worry about, O'Brien and his staff were able to focus almost entirely on recruiting for most of December. That helped Penn State solidify the commitments it had while adding four more. The Lions are also bringing in roughly 15 non-scholarship players, or run-ons as O'Brien likes to call them.
Speaking of bowls, from here on out, the bowl ban likely will not be a serious issue for prospects considering Penn State. In fact, the true freshmen who redshirt this season will actually be on teams that are eligible for bowls in their junior and senior seasons. Class of 2014 prospects who redshirt will have a chance to play in three bowls.
With that in mind, and considering the caliber of class Penn State was able to land in the first recruiting season after the NCAA sanctions hit, O'Brien is optimistic for the future.
Even as questions remain about how competitive Penn State can be on the field while dealing with the sanction.
"We don't see it that way," O’Brien said. "We can't wait to play Syracuse [in the 2013 season-opener]. Life's about challenges."
• Analysis of Penn State Letter of Intent Day Signees
• Analysis of Penn State Early Enrollees
• Penn State’s Class of 2013