UNIVERSITY PARK - In late July, a few days after the NCAA hit Penn State with unprecedented sanctions in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Nittany Lion football coach Bill O'Brien and his staff met with eight concerned high school prospects that had given his program verbal commitments and their families in the Lasch Building's auditorium.
"It was a very private meeting. It was a very emotional meeting," O'Brien said. "I answered probably 50-to-75 questions as best as I could.
"I think that was a very important day for us. It was a very honest, emotional, somewhat tough, but a very productive meeting."
Photo courtesy Joe Hermitt/The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News
Christian Hackenberg, flanked by his parents, Erick and Nikki, signed his letter of intent to attend Penn?State on Wednesday. Hackenberg headlines a class that some recruiting experts placed in the top 25.
The significance of that could not be lost a little more than six months later when O'Brien met with the media on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the 17 players that make up Penn State's 2013 recruiting class, including seven of the eight that were part of that meeting last summer.
As expected, 12 prospects signed with the Lions on Wednesday, joining five that already enrolled last month. Headlined by Virginia quarterback Christian Hackenberg, Cedar Cliff tight end Adam Breneman, New Jersey defensive end Garrett Sickels and New Jersey guard Brendan Mahon, the class, which several analysts expected to disintegrate, beat the odds to be rated in the top 45 nationally by all four major recruiting news organizations.
ESPN rated the Lions' class the highest at 24th. It came in at 26 according to 247Sports.com.
"I think we were able to address all the needs we were looking for. Obviously, we have a limited amount of scholarships we can offer, but we feel we got a great group of kids that can come in and help us and help us get ready for the 2013 season," recruiting coordinator Charles London said.
The class included nine defensive players, including four defensive backs, and a pair of quarterbacks, Hackenberg and junior college signee Tyler Ferguson, who already is taking classes. The Lions brought in three players on each side of the line, as well.
"We feel very positive about this class," O'Brien said. "What we want here is a smart team, a high-character team, a big, fast, physical football team that can play in all kinds of weather. I think we've done that with this recruiting class."
The centerpiece of the class is Hackenberg. Ranked as the No. 1 pro-style quarterback prospect by both ESPN and 247Sports, he might be the most highly regarded quarterback recruit ever at Penn State and has Lion fans salivating at the thought of him at the controls of O'Brien's innovative offenses.
"He's a tall guy. He's got a very accurate arm. He's got a strong arm. He's smart," O'Brien said.
O'Brien didn't rule out that Hackenberg - who many thought would redshirt - could be the starter come fall. Only one of the six quarterbacks that will be on the roster was with the team last season, true freshman Steven Bench. Bench, Ferguson and freshman walk-ons D.J. Crook and Austin Whipple, are on campus for the spring semester.
"Christian, Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson, any one of those guys would be our starting quarterback against Syracuse [in the season-opener]. No question about it," O'Brien said.
Also noteworthy is that nearly a fourth of the class is comprised of players from outside Penn State's traditional recruiting zone. The second-ranked JUCO quarterback according to one website, Ferguson is from California. Defensive tackle Parker Cothren was first-team all-Alabama, defensive back Neiko Robinson led his team to a Florida state championship, and Atlanta-area safety Kasey Gaines was one of the leaders of one of the top prep teams in the country as a junior.
O'Brien said the Lions would continue to look there for talent, although assistant coach Ted Roof, who recruited that area, has left to take a job at Georgia Tech.
"We have connections down there. I coached at Georgia Tech. [Offensive line coach] Mac McWhorter, his roots are down there. But the bulk of our roster will come from that 300-mile driving distance," O'Brien said. "All three of these guys, Gaines, Cothren, Robinson, we think are going to be really good football players for us. That gives us a diverse group of guys when you look at the geography of our roster."
Among the other more highly regarded members of the class are Council Rock North defensive end Curtis Cothran, New Jersey linebacker Brandon Bell, Virginia receiver DaeSean Hamilton, Central Dauphin linebacker Zayd Issah and Heshey tackle Andrew Nelson. Issah, who decommitted and then came back, was the state Class AAAA co-player of the year in 2011. Nelson has grown an inch and put on 30 pounds up to 6-foot-5, 295 since he committed in April.
With only 15 scholarships for the next four years and 65 total from 2014-2017, O'Brien admitted that he and his staff don't have much room for error.
"It's almost impossible to do this, but you really can't miss when you can only sign 15 scholarship players," O'Brien said. "It becomes vitally important to become as thorough as you can be. You can leave no stone unturned."
The Lions signed several players that add versatility in what they can do. Mahon, while a guard, played center in the U.S. Army All-American Game. Cothren was recruited by several teams as a defensive end, and Richy Anderson could play running back, receiver and return kicks.
"You only have 53 guys in the NFL, so it's about finding guys who can multi-task," London said. "It's huge. We're always looking for that edge."
The Lions will try to overcome the restrictions with non-scholarship players. A lot of the Penn State players will not have been highly ranked, but O'Brien noted there were few five-star recruits on the New England Patriots roster when he went to the Super Bowl with them.
"Certainly, we lost some kids because of sanctions," O'Brien said. "But, at the end of the day, all I'm concerned about are the guys that are here. We're not about collecting talent. We're about building a team."