O’Brien is still optimistic about recruiting

CHICAGO – Many people believed Penn State’s recruiting would suffer immensely with the NCAA sanctions, but coach Bill O’Brien sounded very optimistic about that issue Thursday.

“Recruiting has gone well for us,” the coach said.

Not only did star recruits such as Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman remain committed to Penn State this year, the program is doing well for 2014 and beyond.

“We believe that we’re ahead of the game for the ’15 and ’16 classes,” O’Brien said, referring to young prospects his staff has already targeted.

O’Brien noted he spends time every day thinking about recruiting and how to divvy up the 15 scholarships Penn State is limited to each year through 2017. He feels good about the overall talent the program is attracting but noted depth at each position will remain a major focal point because of the scholarship limits.

O’Brien joked that guard John Urschel, a math whiz, should be helping figure out the scholarship numbers.

One area O’Brien said must improve is recruiting in Ohio.

“There’s a lot of Division I players in Ohio, and they can’t all go to Ohio State,” he said.

Despite the sanctions, O’Brien said it can be invaluable just getting a recruit on campus because “it’s such a fantastic place.”

O’Brien praised the coaches on his staff, saying they’re all “solid recruiters.”

One aspect he wants them to work on is doing better background checks so they get to know the players better. That comes on the heels of former recruit Zayd Issah getting arrested twice.

News and notes

Some of the many topics O’Brien addressed during his two-hour media session Thursday:

n He was asked for the first time about Aaron Hernandez, whom he coached with the Patriots. “That was sad. I was sad. Any time you coach a guy and he’s involved in a murder investigation, that’s a sad day.”

n Urschel received a standing ovation from more than 1,800 people after giving a speech during Thursday’s kickoff luncheon. O’Brien called Urschel “a shining example of what college athletics is all about.

n Zach Zwinak remains the first-string tailback entering camp, even though he’s not fully recovered from a left wrist injury in the Blue-White Game. When discussing how Zwinak fumbled too much last year, O’Brien joked that he would have him carry a ball around campus, like in the movie “The Program.”

n Running back Bill Belton is focusing on academics this summer and not doing much football work, and O’Brien said he does believe Belton will be eligible this season. For Belton to become a better runner, the coach wants him to “don’t dance, one cut, go.”

n Running back Akeel Lynch really wanted to play last year as a true freshman, but O’Brien said he understood that it was best for the program if he redshirted.

n There are 66 scholarship players and close to 40 run-ons.

n O’Brien said the Sports Illustrated article that brought up ethical questions about trainer Tim Bream was “absolutely ridiculous.” He added, “I just think the world of Tim Bream.”

n The coach would like to be able to redshirt as many freshmen offensive linemen as possible since he believes it’s greatly beneficial at those positions. He also said he likes to decide who will redshirt after the first three games.

n O’Brien said receiver Alex Kenney has had a “really good offseason.”

n The legend of strength coach Craig Fitzgerald continues to grow, with O’Brien saying he does his personal workout at 3:30 a.m.

n O’Brien does keep a short list of potential assistant coaches should anyone on his staff leave. If a coach does leave for a better opportunity, he said, “That’s good for your program.”

n Safety Malcolm Willis said Penn State still gets motivation from being an underdog story, and O’Brien says that’s only natural. “There’s still a lot of that mentality because of the situation we’re in. We’re not on an even playing field,” he said.

n O’Brien still has a great relationship with Matt McGloin and feels fortunate to have inherited a quarterback who had a lot of playing time.

n Defensive end Deion Barnes tweeted recently that he believes college football players should be paid. “It’s a free country,” O’Brien said of that. “He’s entitled to his opinion.”

n O’Brien said he hates Twitter but doesn’t want to go down the road of banning it for his players. He wants them to “be careful before you hit send.”

n O’Brien is aware of the popular Twitter personality Evil Bill O’Brien, who tweets angrily and comically as the coach’s alter ego. “I think Evil Bill needs to tone the rhetoric down,” the coach said with a laugh.

n O’Brien has great respect for Michigan coach Brady Hoke, mentioning him several times the past two days and calling him “one of the best coaches in the country.” He said he and Hoke share similar philosophies in building a program, wanting “tough guys, smart guys, good guys.”

n O’Brien is impressed that the SEC has won seven consecutive national titles, saying, “Right now there’s no doubt that they’re the king of the hill.” He went on to add he believes things are cyclical in college football and that, “Eventually the Big Ten will come back and be in the hunt.”

n The coach wants to see more night games in the Big Ten and said he hasn’t been able to find the supposed rule limiting night games later in the season. He loves the atmosphere of night games at Penn State.

n O’Brien doesn’t talk to his players about the controversial Joe Paterno stuff but does plan to teach them more about the history of the program.

n He’s recognized locally in central Pennsylvania, but O’Brien joked, “When I go home to Cape Cod nobody knows who the hell I am.” He can’t understand why people want to pose for pictures with him, saying, “Do they actually put that picture on their mantle? Who would ever put a picture of me [up]?”