The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
And then there are times when things just work out in spite of that.
The tale of Penn State's 2014 recruiting class definitely is a case of the latter.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Penn State’s early enrollees speak at Wednesday’s Signature Event at the Bryce Jordan?Center. The players (from left): Chasz Wright, Antoine White, DeAndre Thompkins, Tarow Barney and Michael O’Connor.
Remaining under the shadow of NCAA sanctions, the Nittany Lion program was struck another blow when coach Bill O'Brien took the Houston Texans job on New Year's Eve. Still, Penn State, first under the interim eye of Larry Johnson and then guided by James Franklin for the last three weeks and change, managed to put together a class ranked in the national top 25 by every major recruiting service.
The praise the effort drew from experts at the local, regional and national level was almost universal.
"It was pretty impressive," said Cory James, an Altoona native who helps cover recruiting for the Lions247 website. "You look at what happened when Coach O'Brien took over. A lot of recruits left, although that was somewhat different circumstances. You look at what happened to Vanderbilt's class or Rutgers class when they just didn't have an offensive coordinator or a defensive coordinator. They [the Nittany Lions] not only had the head coach change, but every staff member change, and they were able to keep it together."
PSU recruiting class of 2014
Total number of players: 25
Strengths: Offensive playmakers, secondary, offensive tackle, specialists
Deficiencies: Early impact offensive linemen, linebacker, pass rushers
The gems: WR DeAndre Thompkins, WR Saeed Blacknall, TE Mike Gesicki, WR Chris Godwin, S Koa Farmer, QB Michael O'Connor
The impact players: Thompkins, Blacknall, Godwin, DT Tarow Barney, LB Troy Reeder
The sleepers: RB Nick Scott, S Christian Campbell, WR Troy Apke, LB Jason Cabinda
The ones that got away: DT Thomas Holley (Florida), CB Dravon Henry (West Virginia)
Best job of recruiting: Larry Johnson was the point man for six of the recruits and helped hold the class together after Bill O'Brien left to become coach of the Houston Texans
Most intriguing background: Gesicki also was considered a Division I recruit in basketball. Reeder is one of the top prep lacrosse players in the nation. Apke's father was a linebacker at Pitt. O'Connor is from Canada but played his last two years of high school ball in the U.S. and was coached by former Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke
Where the class ranks nationally: Rivals.com - 24. Scout.com - 25. 247Sports - 24. ESPN - 24. Prep Football Report 25. PrepStar - 25.
Next Signing Day: Feb. 4, 2015
"Overall, I think they did a great job," ESPN Big Ten recruiting reporter Tom Vanhaaren said.
Penn State landed at least one recruit at every position, led by four standout wide receivers, six defensive backs, three running backs and one of the top prospects in the country at tight end (Mike Gesicki) and quarterback (Michael O'Connor) - 25 signees in all, including five that already enrolled, counting against the 2013 class and giving them extra spots for 2014. Franklin and his staff supplemented that by enticing four place-kickers/punters and two long-snappers to walk on.
"They were able to accomplish something a lot of non-sanctioned programs maybe didn't: They were able to fill as many needs as possible," Greg Pickel of FightOnState.com said. "Overall, it was about as good as you could get for dealing with sanctions and losing a head coach."
"There's really not a whole lot you can say negative about this group. It's just so good," said Tom Lemming, publisher of Prep Football Report. "Considering the circumstances, they could have done much, much worse. But I thought they did fantastic."
PrepStar, which is based in southern California, rated Penn State's class as the 25th-best in the country, with five recruits in its top 300 and 19 on its all-region lists. PrepStar had receivers Saeed Blacknall and DeAndre Thompkins ranked in its top 250.
"It's a very athletic class," PrepStar founder Jeff Duva said.
Rivals.com, 247Sports and ESPN had the Lions class ranked its highest at 24. Most had the class third in the Big Ten.
With Blacknall and Thompkins leading the way, the receiving corps highlighted the class. Rivals rated the group - which also included four-star Delaware Gatorade 2012 player of the year Chris Godwin and Pittsburgh speedster Troy Apke - as the third-best receiving group in the country. That doesn't even take Gesicki's presence into consideration; he's regarded as a huge receiving threat as a tight end.
The experts advised getting familiar with the incoming receivers early.
"With Allen Robinson departing for the NFL, there's ample opportunity not only for freshmen to get on the field but have a chance to start," ESPN national recruiting analyst Gerry Hamilton said. "DeAndre Thompkins was a top 100 prospect for us, and he's already enrolled. That's big because he gets to go through spring practice and build that trust with Christian Hackenberg. Then you look a little further. Saeed Blacknall was a big-time flip from Rutgers, a big, physical receiver with vertical speed, Chris Godwin, a big-time athlete, and Troy Apke. I think they addressed their biggest position of need, and they got one of those guys in early."
The Lions also brought in three running backs: powerback Johnathan Thomas from Massachusetts, speedster Nick Scott from Virginia and diminutive Mark Allen from Maryland, who was hampered by a leg injury as a senior but who Lemming really likes. On top of that, Penn State landed four offensive tackles in Scranton's Noah Beh, prep school early enrollee Chasz Wright, Illinois' Brendan Brosnan and Ohio's Chance Sorrells, who was a prospect as a tight end before growing into a tackle - most of them, though, are considered developmental prospects.
In addition to O'Connor, Trace McSorley signed as a dual-threat quarterback from Virginia. McSorley threw for more than 10,000 yards in leading his high school team to four state championship games, winning three of them.
"They got more dynamic on offense with this group," 247Sports national recruiting analyst Steve Wiltfong said. "Christian Hackenberg, Michael O'Connor, whoever is under center is going to be happy with the weapons they have around them."
Penn State might need those weapons over the next couple of years, because defense was a problem in 2013 and the Nittany Lions only could do so much to shore it up.
The Lions lost out on top defensive tackle prospect Thomas Holley from New York when Johnson left to take a coaching position at Ohio State after Franklin's hiring and big defensive end Lloyd Tubman switched his choice from Penn State to Kentucky on signing day. The Lions were able to replace Tubman with intriguing Alabama athlete Torrence Brown, but the only other defensive linemen brought in were junior college blue-chipper Tarow Barney and New Jersey's Antoine White, both early enrollees along with Thompkins, O'Connor and offensive lineman Chasz Wright.
At linebacker, conventional wisdom help that Penn State would bring in three recruits. On signing day, though, the only linebackers listed were Delaware's Troy Reeder and New Jersey's Jason Cabinda. Koa Farmer, though, a borderline four-star safety from southern California, might wind up at linebacker eventually.
"He can play wherever he wants. He's that kind of football player," Duva said of Farmer, whose high school was 25 minutes from PrepStar's offices. "When you watch his team play, everybody is pointing at him, because he just stands out. He's a playmaker."
Penn State, however, was able to make a big move in the defensive backfield with six signees: Farmer, Maryland free safety Marcus Allen, Alabama safety Christian Campbell, Coatesville cornerback Daquan Worley, Georgia corner Grant Haley and Florida corner Amani Oruwariye (pronounced Or-u-war-ay). It's a group with athleticism and size.
Allen and Farmer are candidates to get on the field pretty quickly.
"I've been covering Penn State recruiting for a long, long time, and this may be the best group of defensive backs I ever saw them bring in with one recruiting class," said Phil Grosz, publisher of BlueWhite Illustrated and G&W Prep Report. "I think the number one thing they were able to do with this class is improve positional speed, and I think they did that all around, even the offensive linemen."
How Penn State was able to accomplish so much under such adversity was a culmination of factors. First, O'Brien and his staff got things off to a strong start and had the class almost completed by the time he left. The nucleus they built was so sold on the program, the school and each other than a group of about half of them banded together in an effort to keep the class together.
Also, recognition has to go to Johnson for the job he did as interim coach between O'Brien's leaving and Franklin being named the new head coach.
"Johnson deserved credit for keeping guys interested early on. You know when Coach O'Brien left, those [verbal commits] were getting calls from all kinds of different coaches, and he was able to keep the class together," James said. "He doesn't get the credit he deserves because of what happened afterwards and people feeling there might be bad blood there. But who knows what would if some of those guys who have left, and then James Franklin came in."
Franklin and his staff put the finishing touches on things, bringing in the last nine recruits in the class, including Blacknall and Farmer and five players that committed to them while they were at Vanderbilt. Penn State landed Brown and Campbell without them ever even seeing the campus.
"The transition was very smooth," Hamilton said. "That was to be expected."
"The two best recruiters in the country are Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, but the two best young recruiters are James Franklin and Al Golden. I knew Franklin was going to do well. You don't usually do well in transition years, but Franklin doesn't let the grass grow under his feet. He's a remarkable recruiter," Lemming said. "We had them 25th this year. Next year, I think they'll be in the top 10."
Duva didn't name Joe Paterno, but he did give a nod to the program's history as another reason it was able to thrive amidst what usually is a tough recruiting time.
"It's the storied tradition of the Nittany Lions," Duva said. "It's a storied program and guys can have a chance to compete in front of the crowds they attract in the Big Ten. It's a magnet."
Penn State's 2014 class might not be the one that returns the Nittany Lions to contention for a Big Ten title or puts them in the national championship picture, but the prevailing view of the analysts was it was a move in that direction or a foundation to building bigger and better things.
"This isn't a perfect class. They didn't maybe get enough guys at defensive tackle, maybe didn't get enough guys at linebacker and maybe don't have any guys that can play on the offensive line from day 1, but this is a class that brings in some talent at wide receiver, a much-needed third scholarship quarterback, a potential big-time playmaking safety and depth in the secondary," Pickel said. "When you add the guys who came in last year, maybe things aren't as bleak as they might appear."
"They still finished with a top-25 class. You have to like that," Wiltfong said. "I think Coach Franklin is happy with the players they got."