PSU recruits disappointed but remain committed

While Penn State football fans are reeling from the news Tuesday night that Bill O’Brien was leaving after two years as head coach to take the same job with the NFL’s Houston Texans, it’s harder to understand the emotions of the 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds like Mark Allen who were all set to play for him as Nittany Lions.

“I was obviously upset. I was planning on playing my four years for O’Brien. He was one of the main reasons I committed,” Allen, a running back from DeMatha High School in Maryland, said. “It’s the same for the other recruits, too. That’s why we were upset when we heard the news.”

O’Brien and his staff, in spite of NCAA sanctions that included a bowl ban and reduced scholarships, had been putting together an outstanding recruiting class. With he and most of his assistant coaches gone, though, interim coach Larry Johnson has been left to try to hold it together as Allen and his fellow commits have had to re-evaluate a process most of them thought was over and done with.

“Obviously, the class was going along pretty well. We’ll have to see how the change with Coach O’Brien impacts things,” said Cory James, an Altoona native who is a recruiting analyst for the Lions247 website.

The good news is that, so far, none of the 19 players that have verbally committed have changed to another school or even publicly opened up their recruiting, something that is well within their rights to do because oral commitments are not binding.

Most players in this class won’t sign an actual letter-of-intent until Feb. 5, although several were supposed to enroll for spring classes on Jan. 13.

“I’m very disappointed about these events,” Washington D.C. safety prospect Marcus Allen said. “But, as I collect my thoughts, I come to realize that this is how life is and we have to roll with the punches. Coach OB did what was best for him and I will do the same, and if after all of the dust has cleared that’s Penn State, I will welcome that.”

The two Allens are among a group comprising about half the class that have made it pretty clear over the last two days they expect to stand by their original decisions, either by announcing in interviews or on social media or telling their fellow recruits. That group also includes Delaware linebacker Troy Reeder, Scranton offensive lineman Noah Beh, Virginia running back Nick Scott, Massachusetts running back Johnathan Thomas – who, ironically, went to O’Brien’s high school alma mater — Virginia offensive lineman Chasz Wright, New Jersey defensive tackle Antoine White and, it appears, New Jersey linebacker Jason Cabinda.

“Coach O’Brien played into why I chose Penn State, but I didn’t commit there for Coach O’Brien,” White told the Daily Journal newspaper in Vineland, N.J., acknowledging that four colleges reached out to him on New Year’s Day to gauge his interest. “As much as I liked him and believed in him, I’m not one of those guys who was going to pick a school solely because of the head coach.

“It’s upsetting to see him go, but ultimately, he’s not the specific reason behind my choice. As of now, I’m 100 percent committed to Penn State.”

Virginia defensive back Troy Vincent and Mount Lebanon receiver Troy Apke also could be part of that nucleus, according to second half information from some of the recruits, but Vincent has been rumored to be looking into other visits for a couple of months, and Pitt is expected to make a run at Apke.

Defensive tackle Tarow Barney is definitely in the fold, having already inked his letter-of-intent a couple of weeks ago as a junior college signee. It seems likely that Coatesville defensive back Daquan Worley and New Jersey linebacker Donte Raymond will remain part of this class, too, barring something unforeseen.

That leaves five recruits: receivers De’Andre Thompkins of North Carolina and Chris Godwin of Delaware, quarterback Michael O’Connor of Canada by way of Florida, defensive tackle Thomas Holley of New York and tight end Mike Gesicki of New Jersey. Those five might also be the five highest rated prospects in the class.

Godwin, Holley, O’Connor and Thompkins all were in St. Petersburg, Fla. this week to prepare for Thursday’s Under Armour All-American game. O’Connor and Thompkins were set to enroll at Penn State in less than two weeks along with Barney, White and Wright, but that’s probably on hold now.

“They might decide to go elsewhere, or, hopefully for Penn State’s sake, they might hold off and wait to see who Penn State can hire,” James said.

While all five of those players are question marks and have plenty of other viable recruiting options, O’Connor and Thompkins are considered to be the biggest risks to bolt. In fact, many observers consider it unlikely Thompkins will end up at Penn State now that his Stan Hixon, the highly regarded receiver coach, has decided to follow O’Brien to Houston. O’Connor committed largely based on O’Brien’s ability to groom quarterbacks.

“Thompkins kind of said before if O’Brien left he would have to think about it, but probably if Hixon stayed, he would stay,” James said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move on.”

It appears that Penn State, though, might be able to hang onto Holley if it keeps Johnson on the staff. In fact, several members of the class are very high on the Nittany Lions’ veteran defensive line coach.

“I was very pleased to hear the news that Coach Johnson is the interim coach. I would be pleased if he were to become the full time coach,” Marcus Allen said. “I know he’s the glue that will hold this program and class together.”

Offered by Johnson, Wright, who spent this semester at Milford Academy Prep School in New York, actually committed while the rumors first came out about O’Brien leaving, then decided to remain on board.

“I always thought of Penn State being Penn State. The school, the atmosphere, the people, if you’re part of Penn State, you’re a part of a family,” Wright said. “I respect Coach O’Brien as a coach and as a man, and I know he did what he had to do for himself and for his family. But I didn’t come to Penn State just to play for Coach O’Brien.”

Mark Allen’s sentiments were similar to those of Wright’s.

“Obviously, O’Brien was a major factor [in my initial decision], but the education fits me, and a hundred thousand student and fans are behind you,” Mark Allen said. “Plus, I think it shows good character to stay. I was the first one to commit, and I’m going to try to keep this class together.”

Mark Allen has joined with several of the other committed Lion recruits to try to reach out and keep those that are unsure in the fold.

“I tell them, ‘Come on now, you still have 100,000 fans behind you and a great education. Penn State is just a great school, period. From what I hear, the sanctions are going to be reduced more in December, so, hopefully, we can be in bowl games. It’s going to get better,”’ Allen said. “That’s what I tell them. Once we get a head coach, let’s just keep it together.”