By Philip Cmor
UNIVERSITY PARK - So much of Bill O'Brien's approach to offense is built about making split-second audibles.
Lucky for the Penn State football program, because, in light of the heavy NCAA sanctions, that probably will come in handy with recruiting this year.
The Nittany Lions were building a top-10 class when they were hit with a four-year bowl band and severe scholarship reductions. Over subsequent weeks, four players - including five-star offensive tackle Dorian Johnson and blue-chip cornerback Ross Douglas - backed off verbal commitments to Penn State.
Despite the fact that top prospects like Virginia quarterback Christian Hackenberg and Cedar Cliff tight end Adam Breneman reaffirmed their intentions to play for Penn State, its 2013 recruiting class has dropped to the middle of the pack among BCS programs in rankings by national recruiting sites.
"We have talked about it, and we've got a plan," Lion recruiting coordinator Charles London said on media day of how the staff will address the situation, "and we've already started executing that plan."
So far, that plan seems to have been somewhat effective. Nine recruits have stuck with the Lions, although Central Dauphin linebacker Zayd Issah is considered still to be on the fence, and Penn State got a verbal commitment from Jordan Smith, a Washington, D.C. player at a position crucial to this class, defensive back.
The Lions also used openings from unused 2012 scholarships to bring in Arizona's Brennan Franklin and Florida's Gary Wooten, both linebackers, to join the team this fall. Because Penn State didn't fill its full allotment of scholarships in February and is well beneath the 85-scholarship full-roster limit, Breneman and Florida defensive back Neiko Robinson, who have talked about enrolling in January, also could count against the 2012 limit, which would open more scholarships for 2013.
That's important, because the Lions will be limited to 15 scholarships instead of 25 per year for the next few years. London said it still wasn't clear whether that would go into effect in 2013 or 2014.
"There'll be some limitations there, and we're going to have to adjust our numbers some. We're still kind of assessing where those areas may be and kind of moving forward from there," London said.
The challenges will be plentiful. Along with the annual 15-scholarship limit, the 85-scholarship roster limit will be diminished to 65.
"Our walk-on program now is going to be vital," London said. "We've reached out to the high school coaches in the area, and we'll continue to reach out to them in hopes of helping the team."
The Lions have had great success with walk-ons over the years, but a team subsisting on walk-ons isn't likely to be viable to competing in the Big Ten.
"For Penn State to land some solid recruits coming up, they are going to have to find some guys who clearly want to be Penn Staters, especially in this situation,'' said BlueWhite Illustrated recruiting reporter Ryan Snyder. "Breneman's a guy who grew up a Penn State fan. He appreciates Penn State. Penn State needs to find those kinds of kids."
USC and Ohio State have managed to overcome NCAA penalties to continue to attract top recruits, but Snyder thinks their situations aren't really comparable to Penn State's. USC has been a glamor program for the last decade. Ohio State has a rabid in-state following and now enjoys the star quality of new head coach Urban Meyer on top of that.
In addition to losing some of its top recruits, several other key targets, like running backs David Williams and Derrick Green, have dropped the Lions on their list or dropped Penn State from consideration entirely. Penn State needs to keep recruits from giving up on it before the coaches even get a chance to tell them what the school and program have to offer.
"We just try to talk about the great things that there are here at Penn State. We try every single day to tell the truth and be ourselves, and I think people appreciate that. Recruiting is about relationships," O'Brien said during a conference call last week. "Obviously, official visits are important, no question about it. That's when you can show the recruit your hospitality and university and get the chance to experience a lot of different things. The official visits are really important."
A good showing by this fall's team might help in that regard, and O'Brien also will try to sell the idea that he can prepare prospects to play at the next level. Early playing time also should be available. Snyder, though, thinks there might be another factor at play that could loom as large as any of those.
"Breneman, Hackenberg, [New Jersey guard Brendan] Mahon and [New Jersey defensive end Garrett] Sickels are the core of this class. If the stick around, that will go a long way with some other guys,'' Snyder said.
Snyder thinks that all of the current commitments with the exception of Issah are fairly solid for Penn State as things stand now, but he also cautions that they'll have a lot to think about over the next few months and won't have a shortage of other options.
"February is a long ways off,'' Snyder said.
In the meantime, the coaches are continuing to try to fill openings. They've recently offered Lancaster Catholic running back Roman Clay and Georgia safety Kasey Gaines, according to reports, to try to address two of their biggest areas of need.
"We'll have to keep evaluating. With the reduction, we'll have to be that much more exact on what we're looking for," London said. "We have a talented staff. We have a lot of guys that have recruited for a long time who have a lot of contacts around the country. Maybe our recruiting base might expand. We'll come to some different solutions. With our staff, we'll be able to get it done."