Fitting into the system: ’13 recruiting class fills Nittany Lions’ needs

Bill O’Brien says he doesn’t follow the recruiting rankings.

“Somebody came running into the office [Wednesday] morning and said, ‘Hey, we’re the fourth ranked team in the Big Ten in recruiting.’ Who cares? Who is one, two and three? I don’t know,” the Penn State coach said at his signing day press conference last week.

“At the end of the day, that has nothing to do with how I look at a student-athlete. I look at a prospective student athlete with our staff and I say, ‘Look, this is what we need, okay? So how does this guy fit what we need? What does he do well? What are his weaknesses? How is he going to fit in with our locker room? How is he going to do in class his freshman year? How is he going to do working in the community for us, because he’s going to have to do a lot of that? How does he fit?'”

Just how successful O’Brien’s approach of putting intangibles right up there with 40-yard dash times, bench press marks and athletic indexes will be put to the task in the next few years. Analysts from across the country and in the Nittany Lions’ own backyard gave the program’s 2013 NCAA-hampered recruiting class good reviews in light of everything but still acknowledged that it wasn’t one without question marks.

“I thought they did outstanding. I gave them a B-plus for results and an A-plus for effort,” said Tom Lemming, publisher of the Prep Football Report and contributor to a number of national recruiting websites.

“Just on its own, it’s a solid class, but, when you factor in the restrictions, where they finished was pretty impressive,” said ESPN recruiting analyst Craig Haubert said, whose site gave Penn State its highest rating, 24th in the country.

There was one aspect in particular, though, that Haubert and a lot of the experts agreed was a must need O’Brien and his staff managed to fill.

“It looks like there’s some leadership in this class,” Ryan Snyder of BlueWhite Illustrated said. “That could be huge, absolutely huge three or four years from now when Penn State is transitioning out of the sanctions. I think that’s something we’ll see a couple of years from now, that not only was [this class] talented and that it had some underrated talent, but that we had a handful of guys that were leaders – that could be what we really end up looking at from this class.”

More than a third of the 17-member class – five early enrollees and 12 traditional signees – were on board before the sanctions hit and stuck with the Lions despite all the negative publicity the program was taking during the summer.

“[Christian] Hackenberg, [Adam] Breneman, [Garrett] Sickels, [Brendan] Mahon, [Andrew] Nelson, [Brandon] Bell, [Neiko] Robinson and [Curtis] Cothran really stuck together. I think you see the resolve with some of these kids and how quickly they were able to grow up, and I think that’s going to pay off in the long run,” Sean Fitz of said.

Hackenberg and Breneman are the head of the class, two players that any coach in the country would have wanted.

“I think they’ve been one of the big stories of the recruiting season, to have the sanctions they had and to go our and grab the No. 1 quarterback in the country and the No. 1 tight end,” Nittany Nation’s Josh Moyer said.

Hackenberg, one of two quarterbacks brought in along with junior college sophomore-to-be Tyler Ferguson, improved in the eyes of scouts in his senior year. Breneman, who already is on campus, saw his stock drop slightly because he missed all of his senior year with a knee injury. However, those who saw how well he moved and caught the ball beforehand weren’t deterred from ranking the Cedar Cliff High School product very high.

“He’s a tight end playing wideout who can create after the catch with exceptional speed along the lines of an Aaron Hernandez,” Lemming said.

The Lions also landed to U.S. Army All-American Game lineman from New Jersey. Sickels, a defensive end, had an early offer from Alabama. Mahon, a powerful guard, was versatile enough to move to center for that game.

“Sickels is really strong coming off the edge. I think that’s one thing you’re going to see when he gets up there, becoming the sack guy. He’s a very high motor kid, and you can never go wrong with that,” Greg Pickel of said. “Mahon is a bigger kid that will get even bigger. The thing that stands out about him is his hands and his foot quickness. I don’t think it will take him as long as it might take some other guys to develop into a Big Ten offensive lineman.”

Although not as highly rated as the big four, versatile Central Dauphin linebacker Zayd Issah also almost got universal praise from the analysts.

“I really like him a lot. I think he has big-time potential. I put him as a four-star player,” Lemming said.

“I think that kid’s going to be an impact player,” Pickel added.

However, beyond those five players is where the questions begin.

“It’s a class headlined by Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman. Both are elite 50 prospects. Those are the kind of guys that get you rankings,” SuperPrep magazine publisher Allen Wallace said. “Unfortunately, a lot of the other signees are two- and three-star guys. O’Brien’s really going to have to hope that some of these guys can be developed because there’s not a lot of star-power here.”

Where the Penn State coaches went against most of the reporters was in the secondary. While they shored up the position with four defensive backs – Robinson, Maryland’s Jordan Smith, Georgia’s Kasey Gaines and New Jersey’s Anthony Smith – few other colleges went after any of those players hard.

“They still need help at defensive back. The guys they got are good players, but they’re not game-changers. They’re not guys that can step in and play right away,” Snyder said.

Penn State did have one of the best in the country at that position, but Ohio’s Ross Douglas changed to Michigan when the sanctions came down. The Lions also lost out on four-star-or-better prospects like offensive tackle Dorian Johnson, defensive tackle Greg Webb, wide receivers Will Fuller and Tyler Boyd and running back David Williams, all of which they either had committed or led for at one time.

“Obviously, there were some misses,” Fitz said. “Dorian Johnson, Tyler Boyd and David Williams could have filled major voids going forward.”

The Lions also came close but not cigar for the top junior college quarterback prospect in the country, Jake Waters. They scrambled at the last minute to get Ferguson, who comes in with just a year of college under his belt and competing against rising-sophomore Steve Bench, in all likelihood, for the starting quarterback role this year.

“I think Waters really could have come in and pushed Bench, not that Ferguson won’t. But, at this point, Bench, it’s definitely his job to lose,” Yoder said.

Of course, almost every one of those two- and three-star recruits had at least one analyst high on them. Lemming called Robinson “an outstanding talent.” Haubert liked Gaines for his headiness and ability to be a star player on a high school team filled with big-time recruits – including the No. 1 prospect in the country – although his top other offer came from Harvard. Wallace felt Bell, the New Jersey linebacker, might be better than advertised.

“He’s a rugged, smart kid. He sheds blocks well, plays physical. He has a good reputation as a person in general. He’s a productive player,” Wallace said. “He’s not overly fast, which probably held down his evaluation.”

Wallace also liked Virginia wideout recruit DaeSean Hamilton, as did Pickel.

“He has a very good burst of speed, and he’s very good catching the ball,” Pickel said. “Opposing coaches said he never drops the football. That bodes well in O’Brien’s offense.”

In addition to the bigger names in the class, PrepStars magazine in California had players like Bell, Robinson, Hershey offensive lineman Andrew Nelson and Maryland running back Richy Anderson on its all-region teams.

“They got a lot of all-region guys that will be performers for them,” said Jeff Duva, publisher of PrepStars magazine.

Haubert echoed Duva’s thoughts on Nelson and Anderson.

“Andrew Nelson didn’t finish in our top 300, but he’s a really solid four-star. He’s tough. He’s got to get in the weight room and put on more size, but I think he’s really got a chance to be an excellent offensive lineman,” Haubert said. “Richy Anderson has good bloodlines [his father played at Penn State and nearly a decade in the NFL], and he can help you in a multitude of ways. In the future, numbers are going to be the big issue. Anytime you can get guys to fill multiple roles, they’re huge.”

Jordan Smith is another major sleeper. He sat out his senior year of scholastic competition after transferring high schools, but he spent that time working out with Troy Vincent and Roman Morris – father of Lion cornerback Stephon Morris – before enrolling in January.

“He has a lot of raw ability,” Yoder said.

The Lions went far to the south not only for Robinson and Gaines but to get in on Alabama defensive lineman Parker Cothren. Not long after, he was named first-team all-state and had Auburn and Tennessee trying to get him to change his mind.

“Penn State and Purdue saw the growth potential, saw the motor he had and how he fit the system they are trying to work with,” Fitz said. “When you are fending off teams from the SEC and can still get them to sign on the dotted line, it’s a big deal.”

Fitz also likes Cothran, comparing him in some ways to current Lion defensive end pass rushing stud Deion Barnes.

Penn State identified Cothran, Robinson, Nelson, Bell and Issah early, something Snyder found important.

“Linebacker, they got Issah, and he was one of their top guys, and Brandon Bell was one of their top guys. At defensive end, Curtis Cothran and Garrett Sickels were both in their top three,” Snyder said. “As far as accomplishing what they needed to, it wasn’t a perfect A, but it was definitely above average.”

Sometimes, the system and getting the right fit is more important than rankings, Duva said.

“They got some really highly regarded players as well as some mid-tier guys, but they recruited really well to their needs, and that most important in any recruiting class,” Duva said. “Sometimes the five-star guys are overhyped.”

O’Brien stressed that he’s looking for smart, tough, versatile players with high character.

“In terms of that, it was mission accomplished,” Yoder said.