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Lions go after needs

February 10, 2008
By Philip Cmor,
Sometimes less is more.

At least that seems to be the approach the Penn State coaching staff took in regards to its 2008 football recruiting class. Or, what it hopes to be the case.

You didn’t have to look far on the Internet forums for criticism and pessimism after the Nittany Lions only brought in 14 signees on letter-of-intent day Wednesday, leaving two or three scholarships unfilled. They bemoaned their team missing out on some of their biggest targets and failing to address completely some of their biggest needs.

But the national editors of two of the top scouting services in the country saw the method to what many Penn State fans found to be madness.

‘‘They tried to go after other targets, but the kids just didn’t materialize,’’ said’s Jeremy Crabtree. ‘‘I thought it was refreshing that they didn’t offer just to offer.’’

Allen Wallace, the national recruiting editor of and publisher of SuperPrep magazine was thinking along similar lines.

‘‘Their ranking was hurt by only having 15 commitments,’’ Wallace said before Ohio running back Michael Shaw backed out of verbal pledge to Penn State and signed with Michigan, ‘‘but you only hurt yourself by taking kids that can’t help your team.

‘‘[Penn State] can probably get some preferred walk-ons that will contribute as much as the Plan B kids they could have offered.’’

Perhaps learning a lesson from some of its late 1990s classes where it rolled the dice on a number of sleepers and projects that didn’t pan out, leaving the team without the material on hand or the scholarships available to get that material, Penn State made a decision to recruit quality over quantity. The last time the Lions did that was 2003, when they only signed 11 players.

Two of those 2003 recruits were Paul Posluszny and Tony Hunt, who made the NFL. Rodney Kinlaw, Terrell Golden, John Shaw and Austin Scott were other productive players from that class.

Penn State was able to follow up next year by bringing in 25 recruits, including two-year starting quarterback Anthony Morelli and this year’s probable starter under center, Daryll Clark. That class also included most of its current starting offensive line, two starters on the defensive line and, last but not least, all-time tackle leader Dan Connor.

Recruiting classes aren’t done in a vacuum. It’s not looking about how well the Lions did this year, but how they did in the context of what they have now, what holes they need to fill and what might be on the horizon.

Most felt Penn State needed a running back, and reports surfaced that they wanted two. When Shaw backed out, they were left with one, but it was a really good one, Brandon Beachum. Beachum, who is already enrolled along with linebacker Michael Mauti, perfectly complements what is already on the roster, a physical, pounding runner like Hunt to go with slasher Evan Royster and speedster Stephfon Green.

If Green lives up to his hype from the scout team reports, Shaw might turn out to have been superfluous.

In Mauti, Mike Yancich and Michael Zordich, Penn State got three four-star linebackers to add to a treasure trove it already has at that position. Texas first-team all-stater D’Anton Lynn seems to be someone that could work his way into action quickly.

It was a bit of a surprise that Lynn was the only defensive back the Lions signed, but, in actuality, he was the only one they went after hard. It’s telling that Penn State didn’t pursue more but felt it could afford to take three players at a position of strength like linebacker.

‘‘They have holes to fill two years down the road. Next year, they’ll lose their two starting safeties, so they must like Chaz Powell, Nick Sukay and Cedric Jeffries,’’ BlueWhite Illustrated publisher Phil Grosz said.

They added highly regarded tight end Mark Wedderburn. That raised eyebrows because Penn State is loaded at the position. However, if a player like Anthony Szczeba grows into a tackle, as has been speculated, Wedderburn fills a critical need as a blocking tight end. Matt Stankiewitch, meanwhile, was a quality addition on the line.

The Lions did sign some players who look like projects or sleepers at this point, but guys like receiver A.J. Price, defensive ends Jack Crawford and Pete Massaro, offensive linemen Deon’tae Pannell and Mike Farrell and defensive tackle Brandon Ware all look like potential high-reward gambles.

Price was the only wide receiver signed, a particular point of consternation among the Lion faithful because Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood are all entering their final year of eligibility. As was the case at offensive tackle, Penn State went after a lot of high-end prospects. They swung for the fences on guys like Deion Walker.

That’s the thing Wallace noted, though. While many were concerned that Penn State could get left out in the cold if Terrelle Pryor goes elsewhere, there wasn’t the sense that the Lion coaches thought it was an urgent need to fill, probably because of the presence of Pat Devlin and their feeling about their chances with some current high school juniors.

Besides Pryor, Virginia’s E.J. Manuel was the only other quarterback Penn State really recruited, and he was off the board early.

‘‘I don’t think it’s a blow at all. The key is they made the effort,’’ Wallace said. ‘‘They set themselves up for a greater chance of success next year. Penn State will take care of their needs. That’s ratings vs. what is good for the team. Frankly, I like their tactic. Recruiting is an art.’’

By all accounts, what Penn State didn’t get this year will be in abundance in 2009. Crabtree said the quarterback and receiver crops are very strong and the Midwest looks to have a deeper than usual group of prospects. Grosz felt the running back and offensive line prospects are better next year than they were in this one in Penn State’s traditional recruiting market.

Penn State has already reportedly made scholarship offers to quarterbacks Tate Forcier, Kevin Newsome and Tom Savage, all of whom are on recruiting guru Tom Lemming’s top 100 list for 2009. The Lions look like they are in good shape with a pair of 6-foot-4 receivers, Jaleel Clark of Parkland and Brandon Scott of Virginia, along with Philadelphia’s Je’Ron Stokes — considering how quickly Penn State’s current receivers made their college impacts, waiting a year might not be so damaging.

Ohio’s Chris Freeman and Marcus Hall, Virginia’s Jonathan Crawley, North Carolina’s Xavier Nixon, New York’s Cameron Iuliucci and Scranton’s Eric Shrive give PSU a lot of options at offensive tackle. And then there are linebackers like Gateway’s Dorien Bell and New Jersey’s Carlo Calabrese out there, as well as athletes like Jeannette’s Jordan Hall, Beaver Falls’ Todd Thomas and West Virginia’s Craig Crawford.

Penn State had been linked with at least 15 players on Lemming’s early top 100. Gosz expects Penn State to sign 25 recruits.

It’s not without an element of risk. If Penn State fails to connect with the right players for 2009, it could be left with a lot of egg on its face, but, more importantly, without the talent to be anything more than a middle of the road Big Ten team for a couple of years.

You can’t judge 2008 as a failure on its own, though, said Crabtree.

‘‘It’s one year,’’ Crabtree said. ‘‘If it continues and they strike out next year, then it’s time to raise a red flag. One year isn’t going to break them.’’

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