When Austin Johnson camped at Penn State - his favorite college football program growing up - last summer, the Nittany Lion coaches encouraged the defensive tackle from central New Jersey to return heading into his senior year.
Johnson took the Lions up on their offer and was rewarded June 25 with a scholarship offer, which the 6-foot-4, 276-pound prospect from St. Augustine Prep School promptly accepted.
"It felt pretty good. I was surprised,'' Johnson said. "I was very surprised. And I was happy.''
Johnson wasn't the only one to be caught off guard. His and Winchester, Va. nose tackle Derek Dowrey's commitments on the same day after they were each offered scholarship offers at camp were enough to make some Penn State fans wonder if Joe Paterno had taken over the Nittany Lion baseball program because they seemed to come out of left field - Penn State was believed to be in the market for only one more defensive tackle for its 2012 recruiting class, and the Lions were at or near the top of the list for more well-known prospects Tommy Schutt, Faith Ekakitie and Ryan Watson.
Watson has since announced a top-four that didn't include Penn State, while sources have reported that the Lions would make room for Schutt in this class should he pick the Lions.
Most did not even realize Penn State had interest in Johnson. Johnson's coach, Dennis Scuderi, however, chafed at the notion that Johnson was an under-the-radar recruit.
"There were a lot of schools that were recruiting him. He had several big-time offers. ... He had Rutgers, Syracuse, Boston College, Tulane, Iowa were some of the schools he had offers from,'' said Scuderi, who also sent D-lineman Jack Crawford to Penn State from the Richland, N.J. school. "He's very athletic. ... At 6-5, 280, he's very quick, especially laterally.''
Johnson was athletic enough to be the starting power forward on the Hermits' state championship basketball team and to be recruited by Rutgers and Boston College as an offensive tackle, which Scuderi thinks might eventually be his best position.
While Johnson's calling card is his athletic ability, Dowrey's is his strength. According to Handley High School coach Tony Rayburn, his 6-2, 290-pound nose tackle squats 575 pounds, snatches 250 and split jerks 390. He also finished second in Virginia in his classification in the shot put.
"He's been a captain for two years. He's started since he was a freshman,'' Rayburn said. "He works hard at everything. He's a leader. Obviously, he's has some God-given talent, but he's enhanced it as much as he could. He lives in the weight room.''
The son of one of Rayburn's assistant coaches, Dowrey certainly has the resume to show it. Over the last two seasons, he's amassed an incredible 273 tackles and 18.5 sacks and was a member of ESPN Rise's national all-sophomore team two years ago. He was his district's defensive player of the year as a junior when he made 30 tackles in the opposing backfield, deflected seven passes, forced three fumbles and blocked a field goal in leading the Judges to the Class 3A state semifinals after they started 0-3 with two losses to larger-school powers.
Dowrey's offer list, however, didn't quite stack up to his list of accomplishments. West Virginia was his biggest offer before Penn State's, going along with those from East Carolina, Marshall, Ohio and Richmond.
Rayburn, however, had gotten a vibe that Virginia Tech, Maryland and Georgia Tech were also very interested. Those schools never got an opportunity to offer, as Dowrey, who had been to Penn State several times in the last year - including the Blue-White Game, where he and his family spoke to Paterno - jumped at the Nittany Lions' offer.
"I had other offers, but that was the only one that I would have committed to right away," Dowrey told the Northern Virginia Daily newspaper, which twice has selected him its area defensive player of the year. "I had been evaluating the other schools, but I always knew that Penn State took precedence over the other schools."
Ron Vanderlinden was the Lion assistant who handled Johnson's recruitment, while Bill Kenney laid the foundation for Dowrey before Larry Johnson made the offer and completed the job. Johnson also got to know former Lion DT Ollie Ogbu at Penn State's camps.
The commitments of Dowrey, Johnson and Colorado offensive lineman Joey O'Connor gave Penn State 11 players in its 2012 recruiting class, leaving an expected 12-13 slots to be filled before February. It's also almost completed the Lions' recruiting for the trenches - it's believed they could be looking to take one more offensive lineman, and they've left spot available for Schutt, Bishop McDevitt defensive end Noah Spence and Florida tight end Kent Taylor.
Johnson and Dowrey weren't the only prospects to get scholarship offers out of Penn State's senior-only camp. The Lions also extended offers to Buffalo-area running back Akeel Lynch and Connecticut cornerback Malik Golden, according to internet reports.
Two other Lion recruiting targets are expected to make decisions in the coming days. Ohio safety Jarrod Wilson is slated to announce his college choice on Friday, with Michigan and Notre Dame appearing to be Penn State's biggest competition. Valley View High School linebacker Nyeem Wartman is scheduled to be at Penn State for Lift for Life this week, and, while he hasn't confirmed it, those following his recruitment have speculated he could make a pledge to the Lions while on the trip or shortly thereafter.