Don't Worry About Penn State; Bill O'Brien Thrived on National Signing Day

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Don't Worry About Penn State; Bill O'Brien Thrived on National Signing Day
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One name people didn't expect to see anywhere near the Top 25 of recruiting rankings about six months ago was Penn State, the team ravaged by NCAA sanctions that cost it valuable scholarships and bowl eligibility for almost as long as any 2013 signees would be in the program.

That's a recipe for disaster, one would think, especially for a second-year coach who hadn't been on campus for a signing day before (he was still coaching New England for the Super Bowl through the 2012 signing day).

Funny how an unexpected 8-4 season in the face of those sanctions changes things, however.

Indeed, according to the 247Sports.com composite team rankings, Penn State's final class finished just outside of the Top 25 at No. 26, good enough for fourth place in the Big Ten. And that's with all of 17 players added, while most other classes were closer to the soft 25-player ceiling the NCAA imposes.

O'Brien got his money's worth on those players. He added what could easily be the top pass-catching duo in the Big Ten when it's all said and done, with 5-star dropback quarterback Christian Hackenberg headlining the class and marquee tight end Adam Breneman joining him. And if there's one thing that Bill O'Brien knows how to do, it's utilize the tight end in the passing offense. Observe:

2011 New England Patriots
Player G Rec. Yds. TD R/G Y/G
Rob Gronkowski 16 90 1327 17 5.6 82.9
Aaron Hernandez 14 79 910 7 5.6 65.0

 

2012 Penn State Nittany Lions      
Player G Rec. Yds. TD R/G Y/G
Kyle Carter 9 36 453 2 4.0 50.3
Matt Lehman 12 24 296 3 2.0  24.7 
Jesse James 10 15 276 5 1.5 27.6 
Garry Gilliam 12 7 65  0.6  5.4 

That's about 11 catches and 148 yards per game going through the tight ends in New England, and eight catches for almost 110 yards per game for the Nittany Lions. Now throw Christian Hackenberg and a healthy Adam Breneman into the mix for 2014 and beyond. Yessir!

But even though having the potentially best pass-catch duo in the Big Ten can mask myriad flaws and weaknesses, this is not a top-heavy class. QB Tyler Ferguson is a legitimate passing threat in his own right, and he'll be pushing both Hackenberg and sophomore Steven Bench in practice as Bill O'Brien conducts his QB battle. One of the passers will probably redshirt, just to stagger their eligibilities; don't expect both to be off the field come 2013.

In addition, O'Brien added talented WR DaeSean Hamilton, who should step into Allen Robinson's role as a tall-ish downfield threat that can punish defenses for stacking the box and leaving him in single coverage. It would have been nice to see O'Brien add a complement for Hamilton at wideout, but that's the kind of luxury teams with 85 scholarships get, not the teams with 65.

There's some talent on the defensive side of the ball with this class, too. Zayd Issah is an underrated linebacker prospect with speed and a nose for contact. He was an early Penn State commit that went looking elsewhere when the sanctions hit; O'Brien did a masterful job bringing Issah back into the fold and he's looking like the next marquee member of Linebacker U.

Garrett Sickels will help shore up a defensive line hit hard by graduation, and if he can get up to even 250 pounds (247Sports.com has him at 230) he might need to see the field immediately. He's that good and Penn State's depth is that tenuous, thanks to the new restrictions.

Where O'Brien recruited the most wisely was along the offensive line. He has four returning starters along the front five, so it doesn't look like an immediate need, but guard John Urschel and tackle Adam Gress are both seniors in 2013, and you don't plug holes on the offensive line with true freshmen, no matter what the depth situation looks like. It's a recipe for disaster—and broken quarterbacks.

So with that in mind, O'Brien brought in three line prospects, the best of which is tackle Andrew Nelson. He's a 6'5" big body from Hershey, PA, and he'll likely anchor a line that includes fellow 2013 classmates Brendan Mahon (guard) and Parker Cothren (tackle).

Best yet, the depth isn't going to be as bad a concern as the low scholarship numbers would have one believe, especially from a practice standpoint. As mentioned earlier, Bill O'Brien has a strong "run-on" (or what we laypeople call "walk-on") program that added about a dozen non-scholarship players to the roster in this class.

Not all of these guys will earn scholarships or see meaningful action on the field, of course. Most won't. But they will be invaluable for adding bodies to the practice regimen and helping provide the Penn State starters with scrimmage and scout partners without getting the reserves beaten down as badly in the process. More depth equals fresher legs. It's science.  

For only having 17 scholarship players, this class does a remarkable job not only filling holes but also bringing an influx of talent—something that was not at all a given 12 months ago, or even six months ago. That's a major credit to O'Brien and a sign that things are going to be just fine in Happy Valley in the long run.

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