The prospect of recruiting for Penn State football over the next four years or so, seems, shall we say, daunting. Sanctions cap the roster size at 65 scholarships through 2016, there's no postseason to play for and investment in facilities is going to be severely curtailed as the program pays off massive financial penalties.
And yet recruit is something Penn State must do, since the very fate of the football program depends on it. The NCAA didn't give the program the death penalty and won't unless Penn State screws up again (highly unlikely), but if PSU can't put a viable team on the field there's really no point to playing these games and watching full-strength Big Ten teams smash the Nittany Lions up and down the field for 60 minutes. That's both uninteresting and dangerous.
So how's Penn State doing it? How is Bill O'Brien keeping the recruiting ship afloat? One need look no further for the answer than 2014 running back recruit Mark Allen, who became the first member of the '14 Penn State recruiting class by verbally committing on Tuesday morning. Here's how Allen described the Penn State pitch to 247Sports.com:
The 5-foot-7, 185-pound Allen becomes the first commitment for Penn State in the class-of-2014. He said on Monday that Penn State coach Bill O'Brien compared him to New England Patriots running back Danny Woodhead. He attended camp at Penn State this summer and turned heads by running a 4.43-second 40-yard-dash.
"I love the vibe that I got from the coaches, and it's been that way since I went to the camp," Allen told Wiltfong on Tuesday morning. "They told me size doesn't matter, which most colleges look at and Penn State looked straight passed it.
"The atmosphere and facilities down there is awesome. And I even have to throw this in there, Coach O'Brien just came from my favorite NFL team, the Patriots, so it's just a lot that made me (commit)."
This is a wise move on Penn State's part. Recruiting rankings are, on a macro level, pretty decent indicators of recruiting quality. They're hardly exact and there are just way too many variables that come into play off the high school football field to accurately predict any player's development or eventual contribution level.
But while recruiting rankings are generally good, they tend to resemble NFL draft profiles more than predictors of collegiate success. So while it'd be nice to have a 6'6", 220-pound quarterback coming in, or a 6'7", 320-pound tackle who can bench press the sun or anyone who fits the frame of a next-level athlete, the real question recruiters need to ask is simple: "Can this kid help me win football games from when he's 18 to 23 years old?" Maybe size is part of that equation. It doesn't always have to be.
And looking at tape of Allen, it seems pretty clear that he can help Penn State in sort of a Devon Smith type of role (although hopefully that ends better than Smith's career at PSU did).
So expect to see more guys like this in the coming years for Penn State—role players, guys who don't look like future NFL players but can do their tasks well enough (and with sufficiently little ego) that Penn State puts together a cohesive, complete team.