Penn State football coach Joe Paterno is fond of saying that you are never as good as you look when you win nor as bad as you think when you lose.
Such a comment would be very appropriate for his Nittany Lions' 2011 recruiting efforts.
After a slow finish to a strong class in 2010, the Lions worried fans when they took forever to get out of the gate this year, spending a seeming eternity with only four recruits. However, Penn State turned it on late, getting almost everyone it targeted down the stretch and just missing out on a couple of others.
Was it a good class or bad? The recruiting analysts see aspects of both that have it somewhere in between.
"It's a solid class,'' said SuperPrep magazine publisher and Scout.com national recruiting editor Allen Wallace. "It's not a national championship class.''
Wallace has yet to finalize his individual rankings but expects the Lions to be somewhere in the 30s, as was the case with most of his peers.
Penn State recruiting class of 2011
Total number of players: 15
Strengths: Offensive line, defensive end
Deficiencies: No quarterbacks or running backs or pure defensive tackles, only one defensive back, linebacker and tight end
The gems: OT Donovan Smith, DE Anthony Zettel, G Angelo Mangiro
The impact players: PK Sam Ficken
The sleepers: WR Matt Zanellato, OT Ryan Nowicki
The ones that got away: DE Ishaq Williams (Notre Dame), TE Ben Koyack (Notre Dame), CB Albert Louis-Jean (Boston College)
Best job of recruiting: Larry Johnson, just edging out Mike McQueary and Ron Vanderlinden
Most intriguing background: Shawn Oakman has played at the Bryce Jordan Center in the PIAA Class AAAA basketball final the last two years and intends to play both sports at Penn State. Allen Robinson was a high school teammate of Nittany Lion freshman QB Rob Bolden. Ryan Nowicki's father played for Purdue.
Where the class ranks nationally: Rivals.com - 35. Scout.com - 33. ESPN - Outside top 30. SuperPrep - Somewhere in mid-30s. G&W Prep Report - Between 30 and 35. PrepStar - 27. 247Sports - Outside top 25.
Next Signing Day: Feb. 1, 2012
"Coming off their 2010 run, you'd have to call this disappointing,'' Sean Fitz, the publisher of Lions247.com, said. "This year, there was not as much talent in state. Their overall finish was solid, but they missed on a couple of players that really would have helped them.''
Fitz was referring to New York five-star defensive end Ishaq Williams, who was swayed at the last moment to go to Notre Dame after apparently favoring the Lions, U.S. Army All-American Bowl cornerback Blake Countess of Maryland and Boston cornerback Albert Louis-Jean. Countess made a late visit to Penn State but decided to stick to his original choice of Michigan. Like Countess, Louis-Jean was inexplicably absent from the Lions' radar early, then visited Penn State after committing to Miami following the Hurricanes' coaching change only to eventually choose Boston College.
Those losses were tempered by the late additions of Philadelphia defensive end Deion Barnes and Baltimore safety Adrian Amos. It was nothing compared to the early going, when Oil City tight end Ben Koyack picked Notre Dame, and the Lions couldn't seem to make up their mind on players like New Jersey running back Savon Huggins, Pottsgrove cornerback Terrell Chestnut and East Stroudsburg safety Kyshoen Jarrett and wound up losing all of them to other BCS schools.
"If you don't get offers out by mid-March, you are going to suffer,'' BlueWhite Illustrated publisher Phil Grosz said. "With only about 15 scholarships available, Penn State was careful to make offers. Then Joe got sick, and they got caught behind the 8-ball. I credit Mike McQueary, Bill Kenney, Ron Vanderlinden and Larry Johnson for doing a great job from mid-November until signing day.''
By finally getting longtime Lion leans like Barnes and Maryland U.S. Army All-American offensive tackle Donovan Smith to commit, taking advantage of Pitt's double coaching change to bring in Dallastown linebacker Ben Kline and New Jersey slot receiver Bill Belton and pulling surprises to reel in linemen Anthony Zettel of Michigan and Ryan Nowicki of Arizona, Penn State was able to sprint to the finish line.
"I think a lot of people got bogged down by the slow start, and deservedly so,'' Cory James, who follows football recruiting for FightOnState.com, said. "People are complaining. Then they look at the average [Scout.com] star rating, and Penn State is 17th. And maybe it's underrated. Seventeenth is pretty good.''
California-based PrepStar magazine actually has Penn State ranked higher than most, checking the Lions in at 27 in the country. PrepStar ranks six of the Lions' 15 recruits - 16 if you count cornerback Shyquawn Pullium, who signed in 2010 then re-signed Wednesday after spending a year at Kiski Prep to improve his academics - in its top 250: Zettel, Barnes, Belton, Smith, 6-foot-9 Penn Wood defensive lineman Shawn Oakman and New Jersey guard Angelo Mangiro.
It has Zettel, a defensive end/guard who may grow into a defensive tackle, rated the 56th-best prospect in the class.
"Deion Barnes is pretty solid. If he can put on weight, he has a chance to be really good,'' said Keith Smith, PrepStar's director of football operations who played at Beaver Stadium in 1999 when he was quarterback at Arizona. "Bill Belton, I really like, along with Oakman. Oakman might make a move to offense in the future.''
The beef of the class, as it seems to have been for a couple of years, is up front. The Lions signed four defensive ends and four offensive linemen. And they seem to have gotten quality there, too: Mangiro was rated the No. 3 guard in the class by Scout.com and picked to play in the UnderArmour All-American Game. Nowicki, although seemingly shunned by the scouting services, had an impressive list of offers that included USC, which tried to get him to change his mind right up until signing day.
"Florida State saw his tape,'' James said of the 6-5, 285-pound Nowicki, "and asked if it had been sped up.''
"We liked what they did in the trenches,'' Wallace said. "I've always been a guy that believed it all starts with your offensive and defensive lines. Just look at what happened to Oregon in the national championship game.''
Not only did Penn State get talent, it got some players who seem to really excel at physical play and have a mean streak that doesn't seem to have been as prevalent, especially on the offensive front, as it had been in the 1970s through the early 1990s.
"A couple of guys they brought in, Nowicki, Zettel, Mangiro, Anthony Alosi are really nasty guys on the football field. They are out there pummeling kids,'' Fitz said. "You look back in recent years, they've signed some nice offensive linemen who really didn't pan out. They'd like to get back to that mindset of kids like Rich Ohrnberger. They brought in a couple of guys like that last year.''
"Toughness has been a major problem in the Penn State football program,'' Grosz said. "They didn't have that last year.''
Meanwhile, Smith's size (6-foot-6, 300 pounds) and ability to pass block makes him appear a natural left tackle. He did very well in the All-American Bowl.
Even without Williams, the crop of pass rushers Penn State brought in ranks among the nation's best, led by consensus top-100 player Zettel, Barnes, Oakman and Fairview's athletic Jordan Kerner, who James has heard likened to Brad Scioli.
The Lions did well at wide receiver, too. Along with the elusive Belton, Penn State signed Virginia's Matt Zanellato and Michigan's Allen Robinson. Some bemoaned the pursuit of Zanellato early when he didn't have any other big-time offers. He's now seen as the second coming of Joe Jurevicius after switching high schools and making more than 90 receptions in a pass-friendly offense.
The big question, though, is whether the Lions got enough bang for their buck. Defensive back looked like an obvious need, but Penn State passed on several candidates and struck out on others. Eventually, they only signed one new player in the secondary.
The same could be said for defensive tackle, although Zettel may eventually grow into that position or someone like Nowicki could be moved there. Instead, the coaches used extra scholarships on the offensive line and wide receiver, even on a place-kicker, Sam Ficken.
James admitted the Lions didn't do a particularly good job of filling all needs or balancing the class, but he thought it could have been worse.
"When they didn't get the guys they wanted, they didn't take just anyone,'' James said. "They got good guys at other positions.''
Ficken was one of several less-heralded recruits in the class. It's a risky proposition for a small class, even though there's a lot of reason to be optimistic that three-star players like Zanellato, Nowicki, Alosi, Amos and even Delaware tight end Kyle Carter, who didn't have another offer from a Division I-A college, were underrated by the scouting services, in retrospect.
"He's already ahead of where Andrew Quarless was as a [college] sophomore [physically],'' Fitz said of Carter. "He already has an NFL body.''
This isn't a class whose effectiveness will be easy to judge early. As good as Belton and Zanellato look, they are playing positions where Penn State is already fully stocked. A couple defensive ends could crack the three-deep depth chart, but linemen typically take a couple of years to develop. Ficken, ironically, is the most likely to make an early impact and was brought in specifically for that purpose.
Without a quarterback or running back and only 15 scholarships, it was going to be hard for Penn State to post a high ranking. However, Wallace isn't willing to give the Lions a free pass just because of that.
"Not having many scholarships doesn't mean you can't load up on guys. Some years, Florida State has only had 12 or 13 scholarships, but they signed 12 or 13 four- or five-star players,'' Wallace said. "This is somewhat of a step down from what Penn State's done in recent years.''