Penn State assembled one of its finest recruiting classes ever for 2012.
Unfortunately, the Nittany Lions will have to play against the nucleus of it in the coming years.
When the university was rocked by the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that led to a coaching change and almost a brand new staff with less than a month before signing day, highly rated Penn State recruits Camren Williams, Armani Reeves, Tommy Schutt and Joey O'Connor instead joined elite Harrisburg defensive end Noah Spence - a player for whom the Lions once appeared in the driver's seat - at Big Ten rival Ohio State. Another player Penn State was close to landing, Jeannette safety De'metrious Cox, signed with Michigan State.
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Running back Akeel Lynch is one of the top members of Penn State’s recruiting class.
All those players were four- or five-star prospects, as were defensive tackle Jarron Jones and offensive tackle J.J. Denman, who decommitted and picked other schools before news of the scandal broke. The Lions also lost out on quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg and tight end J.P. Holtz to Florida and Pitt, respectively, in the aftermath.
Oh, what might have been. Had all of those players remained, Penn State's class would have been right on the edge of the top 10 nationally. Instead, only one major scouting service ranks it in the top 40.
"You can't compare it to a typical Penn State class,'' Connecticut-based Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. "People are used to having a top-three class in the Big Ten and a top-25 class [nationally], and that was just not going to happen when you had the scandal and you had a delay in hiring a coach and that coach is in the NFL and can't really recruit yet.''
PSU's class at a glance
Total number of players: 19
Strengths: Defensive tackle, wide receiver, defensive back
Deficiencies: Only two offensive linemen and one linebacker, probably would have liked a second running back, lack of highly rated talent
The gems: WR Eugene Lewis, RB Akeel Lynch, DT Jamil Pollard, DT Brian Gaia
The impact players: Lewis, Lynch, S Jordan Lucas, CB Da'Quan Davis, WR/DB Malik Golden (if he plays on defense)
The sleepers: DE Evan Schwan, TE Jesse James
The ones that got away: DE Noah Spence (Notre Dame), CB Armani Reeves (Ohio State), S De'metrious Cox (Michigan State), DT Tommy Schutt (Ohio State), G Joe O'Connor (Ohio State), OT J.J. Denman (Rutgers)
Best job of recruiting: Larry Johnson for salvaging class after Sandusky scandal broke; Bill Kenney would have been winner had class stayed together
Most intriguing background: Schwan's father was an all-Big Ten guard at Purdue. ... CB Da'Quan Davis and WR Trevor Williams were teammates of current Lion freshman CB Adrian Amos in high school. ... C Wendy Laurent was born in Haiti. ... Lynch is from Canada. ... QB Steven Bench played football in the hometown of Jackie Robinson and is himself a top baseball player.
Where the class ranks nationally: Rivals.com - 50. Scout.com - 49. ESPN - Outside top 25. 247Sports - 39.
Next Signing Day: Feb. 6, 2013
Farrell and others in his field, though, say that, for all the Lions have been through, all was far from lost in this 19-member class, even if it might not have the star appeal it was on the verge of attaining six months ago.
"Considering what the last five months has been like for Penn State I think what they accomplished was nothing short of spectacular,'' ESPN's Tom Luginbill said. "Yes, there was some attrition, but that was to be expected.''
"It's a class that certainly is not as good as it looked at one point, but it's not as bad as it could have been in the fallout of the scandal,'' Sean Fitz, who covers Penn State for 247Sports, said. "They filled some defensive line holes. They needed some defensive tackles. They went out and they got them. And, late, they made some charges at some guys who could fill in some spots for some depth in the defensive backfield and perhaps wide receiver, as well.''
"When you look at what Penn State needed position-wise, I think they were able to address most of their needs. The issue really was a little bit of dropoff from the players they had committed who they lost versus the guys they were able to replace them with,'' said Cory James, who helps cover recruiting for Scout.com's Penn State website, FightOnState.com.
Even with all the upheaval, Penn State's class finished ranked in the upper-half of national programs. Ryan Snyder, who handles Penn State football recruiting for BlueWhite Illustrated and the Rivals.com network, said he ranked the class overall as a C, but, grading on the curve, probably would bump it into the B range.
"Given the circumstances, the coaches did pretty well,'' Snyder said. "Of course, losing guys like Armani Reeves, Camren Williams, Tommy Schutt and even Noah Spence to some degree, since he was a Penn State lean at one point, people are going to look at that and think Penn State lost out big time, but the guys they filled in with at the end aren't given proper ratings, in my opinion. I think they're better athletes than some Rivals, Scout and some other companies give them credit for. You get a kid like [Central Dauphin defensive end] Evan Schwan. He didn't play as a junior. That's why he's rated two stars.
"Back last summer, people were talking a top-15, top-10 class when Jarron Jones signed up and they had Camren on board. If you were expected a top-25 class after all that went on, you probably weren't being realistic. I think the way they saved it and they actually got some decent prospects at the end, these guys may have a two-star rating, but people will see once they develop that these two-stars can play with four-stars any day.''
Penn State brought in four players that had a four-star rating by at least one of the big four scouting services: Wyoming Valley West wide receiver Eugene Lewis, Buffalo running back Akeel Lynch, southern New Jersey defensive tackle Jamil Pollard and Baltimore-area tight end Brent Wilkerson. Baltimore defensive tackle Brian Gaia and Valley View linebacker Nyeem Wartman - the only linebacker in the class after Williams switched schools - just missed being ranked four stars.
Lewis, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound converted quarterback, is the only player that received a four-star rating across the board.
"Eugene Lewis is a stud of a wide receiver,'' Snyder said. "This is the kind of kid that can be Justin Brown but better, in my opinion.''
While Lewis got the highest ranking, the analysts were nearly unanimous that Lynch might have been the most important recruit for Penn State. A 6-foot, 205-pounder with speed, Lynch was the New York state player of the year according to Gatorade. Penn State managed to keep him away from Oklahoma, among other school.
Another positive is that, while he was recruited by Joe Paterno's staff, he committed to Bill O'Brien's.
"The biggest thing that they did that the previous staff was trying to do was to land a big-time running back. Running back was the biggest need in this recruiting class, and Penn State would have liked to get two,'' 247Sports national recruiting analyst Steve Wiltfong said. "They did get one great one in Akeel Lynch.''
"I was really impressed with him when I saw him on tape, with his size, with his feet, with his view. He's really hard to tackle,'' said assistant coach Stan Hixon, who spent last year with the Buffalo Bills.
Defensive back and defensive tackle were considered the primary positions of need before the season, and the Nittany Lions brought in four players at the latter and three at the former, although Connecticut's Malik Golden, now listed at receiver, was originally recruited to be a cornerback.
"The defensive line is a good group. There are a couple of guys that will take a while to develop, but, with [assistant coach] Larry Johnson, you know he's going to get the most out of these guys,'' Farrell said. "At defensive back, Malik Golden and Jordan Lucas are both guys that could be very good safeties, and, at corner, Da'Quan Davis could be a good player there.''
Pollard and Gaia headline the defensive tackles, which also includes ultra-productive 300-pounder Derek Dowrey from suburban Washington, D.C. and Austin Johnson, an athlete from New Jersey. Snyder has said in the past that he thought Pollard might be a better prospect than the more highly touted Jones, who changed from Penn State to Notre Dame in August.
"Dowrey and Gaia are very physical inside,'' Larry Johnson said on signing day.
James was very high on Gaia.
"He really impressed me with the way he was able to get off the ball, get into the backfield and use his hands,'' James said. "I thought he was a four-star who was rated as a three-star. When Larry Johnson gets done with him, he might be the best player in the class.''
With all four starters graduating, defensive back is one of the most likely spots to see a true freshman get on the field this fall.
"Da'Quan Davis would fit the role, but he needs to add a little weight. Another guy is Jordan Lucas. They brought him in pretty late. He has the size already that he could contribute,'' Snyder said. "I would say Malik Golden, but it looks like they may be moving him to wide receiver. I think he could be a great defensive back. He's a guy I had circled who might have some success right off the bat.''
The one area where the analysts thought the Lions came up light was on the offensive line.
"I think they would have liked to get more guys there than they took,'' Farrell said.
Penn State was expected to sign four but ended up with only New Jersey center sleeper Wendy Laurent and Ohio guard Anthony Stanko. However, there is a disclaimer to be made with this group.
"All of the linemen, in general, can play either side of the ball,'' Snyder said. "There's a lot of plusses in this class that people are kind of overlooking.''
Indeed, Gaia was rated as a guard by some scouting services, Austin Johnson was recruited by Rutgers and Boston College for offense and Pollard was twice named first-team all-South Jersey by the Philadelphia Inquirer as an offensive tackle. In addition, there is some sentiment that 6-7 tight end Jesse James could eventually wind up an offensive tackle.
It works both ways, too. Wilkerson received a lot of love as a defensive end, and some see Laurent's best spot on the defensive line, just as they see Golden being a potential impact player on defense.
"It's not a class that's going to set the world on fire. It's a class that has a couple of guys that could be really good and it has some glue guys that are going to help you win football games,'' Wiltfong. "Then you go out in 2013 and go out and get some difference-makers.''
The Lions also signed an intriguing quarterback in Steven Bench. Bench ran the option for two years before transferring to a school that threw the ball, and his recruiting took off from there.
"I really think that if he had a couple of years in that offense, he'd have had more offers from prestigious schools,'' Cory James said. "I thought he showed a lot of touch on the ball and a lot of presence in the pocket.''
As far as the big names that they lost, Penn State might have been behind the 8-ball.
"They [the new coaches] had about three weeks to try to salvage what they had,'' Fitz said. "It's hard to set up and establish those relationships when you get rid of guys like Bill Kenney, who have fantastic relationships with some of these guys. It wasn't so much that there was a changing of the guard. It was that there was so little time for these guys to work. You throw Bill O'Brien not being able to go on the road, and that might impact some people's decisions.''
"They didn't even have a chance to recruit Schutt: By the time they were hired, he was gone,'' Wiltfong said. "Cam didn't give them much of a chance, in my opinion, and I'm not sure even Armani gave them much of a chance. The blows were dealt there, and I don't think that can be hung on the new staff. It was just a matter of circumstances.''
Golden, Wilkerson, Lewis and Wartman all looked around and stayed with Penn State. Pollard looked around and recommitted to Penn State before a new coach was even named, and the foundation for bringing in Lynch was set down by the previous staff, although they almost lost him in the interim.
"Much of the credit goes to a group of men on a coaching staff that knew they were sitting ducks yet somehow held the group together,'' Luginbill said, referring to the likes of Kenney, Tom Bradley and Bill Kavanaugh, the graduate assistant who acted as Bradley's recruiting coordinator.
Even Williams and Reeves remained on Penn State's commitment list until close to signing day before going to Ohio State. The new staff then completed the class with eight recruits, including Schwan, Lucas, Davis, Lynch and Bench.
"The reason Penn State fans should be happy,'' Luginbill said, "is that those who signed truly want to be Nittany Lions above all else.''