Penn State's new offense offers a major selling point to recruits, assistant head coach Stan Hixon said, and top skill position prospects who might not have considered the Nittany Lions in the past now could be more intrigued by the new Patriots-style system.
"That's been a great selling point for wide receivers, also to tight ends and even to running backs, especially to receivers and tight ends," said Hixon, who coaches the receivers. "The players have really gravitated to it, and the recruits seem to like it because of what we're doing."
In the back of every recruit's mind, Hixon said, he wants to "have a good college career, graduate and go off to the NFL." O'Brien, Hixon and running backs coach Charles London all have worked in the NFL, and Hixon believes that fact and the new offense will make Penn State attractive to recruits, even with the NCAA sanctions.
"It's been a good selling point, and it will be used in recruiting as we move forward," Hixon said.
Having receiver Allen Robinson enjoy such a big season -- 57 catches, 689 yards, eight TDs -- should only help with recruiting receivers. While many people have been surprised with Robinson's big season, Hixon has not.
"Working with him through the spring, we kind of knew and I kind of knew right off the bat he was really one of our better receivers," Hixon said. "When we came in, Allen was really playing behind Justin Brown. ... And by the middle of spring, Allen was improving so much we decided to put him at the starting receiver where he's at now and put Justin Brown on the other side."
Brown eventually transferred to Oklahoma, and Robinson has emerged as a standout. But Hixon says there's much more to come.
"He's nowhere near as good as he's going to be, but obviously he's off to a great start," he said of Robinson.
Here's a Q&A with Hixon from his teleconference Thursday.
Q: Do you still have aspirations to get back to the pro level as a coach?
A: I really like Penn State the short time I've been here, and the reason why I came back [was] to get back to coaching college players. Right now at this point in time I don't have any aspirations to go back. I just want to do a good job here on this staff and get the players better and obviously get the program back to where it was before things went down.
Q: How did O'Brien sell you on coming to Penn State?
A: I was at Buffalo, and New England, we played each other twice a year. We continued to talk during the year. And the opportunity really to learn this offense ... the offense really works. ... I'm a 30-year veteran coaching college and pro, but still, as a coach you want to learn and get better. ... It was a good thing for me to do.
Q: You and the other new coaches didn't know the severity of the potential sanctions when you took the jobs. How difficult was it for you personally when the sanctions came down, and did you have to go through some self-evaluation things?
A: To be truthful, yes it was difficult. But it is what it is. You come here with some expectations and you get handed something else. But in my mind and my wife's mind, we've just got to move forward with what we've got here and just make the best of the situation. It's not going to last forever. Penn State is still Penn State, when you talk about Penn State academics, Penn State football.
We just try to keep as many players as we can here because we've got good players, and we're recruiting good players. So everything's going to be OK. It obviously hurts that I'm not playing for a championship and not going to a bowl game, but that's out of our control. We'll just do the best with what we have, and all the players work hard and the coaches work hard, we should be OK. We've adjusted to it, and it's kind of water under the bridge and just kind of moved on from that right now.
Q: How far has Brandon Moseby-Felder come?
A: He's playing faster, and really his route-running has really improved from spring. In spring ball he might have been there for like five to eight days and then pulled a hamstring, and then in summer he wasn't full speed when we started camp. ... One thing about Brandon, he's probably one of the older guys we have at that position. ... He's been telling me all along how good he was. And with me, it's, OK, we'll see. We'll just give you the opportunity to show what you can do. And I think he really has taken advantage of the opportunity.
Q: How will your receives fare against Nebraska's secondary, which is one of the strengths of the defense?
A: It's going to be a tough challenge. They're big, and a lot of them, you'll see them on Sunday [in the NFL]. ... We just try to tell our guys just do what you've been doing, continue to play physical as much as you can and we've just got to be able to accept the challenge and make what we call contested catches because they do a really good job of playing man coverage.