UNIVERSITY PARK - One can argue that signing day is the one day when every college football team wins.
On Wednesday, Penn State fans could imagine 6-foot-7, 245-pound tight end Jesse James as the next Rob Gronkowski, picture center Wendy Laurent's athletic ability turning him into a future Maurkice Pouncey, translate quarterback Steven Bench's accurate arm and running skill into another Dan?Persa or convince themselves that fast-rising defensive end Evan Schwan could become a better college player than superstar Ohio State signee Noah Spence.
It might happen. Truthfully, the odds are stacked against five-star players as much as two-star players, something new Nittany Lion coach Bill O'Brien realizes.
"I could care less about player rankings,'' O'Brien said in a conference call from Indianapolis as he prepared for Sunday's Super Bowl. "I'm a part of a football team right now, the New England Patriots, that, if you went up and down our roster, you'd find players that were highly ranked coming out of high school and you'd find plenty of guys that weren't ranked at all.''
However, getting all Nittany Lion recruiting followers to feel their school came out on top this year was a little harder sell, considering that the majority of the team's top recruits from what could have been a top-10 class decided to go elsewhere following the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal and the firing of iconic coach Joe Paterno and dropped it out of the top 25.
The message O'Brien and his assistants were making at a press event at the Lasch Building that would have been out of place during Paterno's tenure was not to look at the stars, but at ourselves, that the who signed with the Lions on Wednesday are Penn State through and through and they might be better than scouts think.
"One of the wonderful things when a coaching staff first takes over is that you're undaunted by ratings and all the extra part of recruiting. You're really just watching the athlete himself, just from a standpoint is he big enough, is he fast enough, does he make plays, can he do it at a high level. The different times we did that in my career at different universities, we've had some of the best recruiting classes we ever had,'' linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, one of the two holdovers from Paterno's staff along with Larry Johnson, said.
In all, 18 players signed with Penn State; James already has enrolled. The Lions inked four players apiece at wide receiver and defensive tackle and three defensive backs - assistant coach Larry Johnson confirmed that Connecticut prep Malik Golden will get an initial look at wideout instead of cornerback.
Consensus four-star Wyoming Valley West receiver Eugene Lewis is the most highly touted player in the group, and southern New Jersey defensive tackle Jamil Pollard, Buffalo running back Akeel Lynch, Baltimore area tight end Brent Wilkerson and Baltimore defensive tackle Brian Gaia carry four-star ratings from at least one of the major Internet recruiting services. Lynch was the Gatorade player of the year in New York. Defensive back Jake Kiley won that award for New Hampshire.
Valley View linebacker Nyeem Wartman also received strong support from some recruiting analysts.
"I think it's really solid. We appreciate the people that stuck with us in the period of uncertainty. I feel good about it,'' new defensive coordinator Ted Roof said of the class. "Defensively, we lost four starters in the secondary, so we needed to get some numbers there, and we got some kids with versatility who can play safety or corner. That was a real plus. And you can never have enough defensive linemen, especially in the Big Ten, which is so physical.''
"We were able to address the areas of the program where we need additional depth,'' added incoming recruiting coordinator Charles London, who will be filling Tom Bradley's big shoes recruiting for the Lions in western Pennsylvania as well as handling duties in southern Virginia. "I think this class is going to be a class we're going to build on for the future, and it's going to be a building block for Penn State.''
Lewis, Golden, Wilkerson and Wartman all ultimately picked Penn State after committing to the Lions, then looking around after the coaching change. Lynch was one of eight players to sign who committed after O'Brien took over, setting aside a pledge to Boston College and foregoing a visit to Oklahoma to do so.
Johnson took over as an unofficial recruiting coordinator for O'Brien during the staff transition and was instrumental according to his peers in keeping together what it could of the class. He also got Maryland prospects Trevor Williams (receiver) and Da'Quan Davis (cornerback) to switch their commitments from West Virginia and brought receiver Jonathan Warner, son of Penn State standout running back Curt Warner, into the fold.
"Every recruit I talked to has mentioned [Johnson] as either a reason they kept their commitment or came on their visit. He's been vital to this class,'' London said. "I think it was his belief in Penn State. They could just feel his pride in the university. The message he was trying to convey to them obviously got through.''
While saying he wasn't disappointment that six players decided not to follow through on non-binding verbal commitments after the coaching change, Johnson felt those sticking with the Lions showed special qualities.
"It says they've committed to Penn State for all the right things. The players and families that stayed with us took some heat. That says a lot,'' Johnson said. "For them to stay where they are was tremendous. We've got a great group of kids.''
Penn State also brought in Bench late from southern Georgia, well outside its traditional recruiting area.
"We've got to do a great job in that 300-to-400-mile radius of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, New England, and the majority of our roster should come from there. Then we want to use our connections where we've coached, whether it be Georgia, Florida, maybe Alabama, and get kids that fit Penn State,'' O'Brien said. "We watched [Bench] on tape and felt very good about his production. We felt his accuracy and decision-making will fit what we do, and his leadership really came through on his official visit.''
Despite O'Brien's overriding desire to keep the players that had already committed before he was hired, Penn State missed out on some considerable talent. Linebacker Camren Williams, cornerback Armani Reeves, guard Joey O'Connor, defensive tackle Tommy Schutt, tight end J.P. Holtz and quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg all were committed to the Lions at the beginning of November but signed with other schools, and Penn State appeared to have led for Spence and safety De'metrious Cox, who signed with Ohio State and Michigan State, respectively. All but Holtz and Mornhinweg were four-star recruits or better.
Even before the upheaval broke, Penn State lost commitments from five-star defensive tackle Jarron Jones and four-star offensive tackle J.J. Denman.
Penn State might have had room for a couple of other signees, but the coaches said the key was to get players they felt could compete in the Big Ten and not just to fill openings.
"We looked at it just purely as an experienced coaching staff can we beat everybody on our schedule with this player. If we didn't feel that individual could do that, we would not have recruited them. Whether he was or was not under the radar, he was on our radar, and that's all that matters,'' Vanderlinden said. "I'd just take you back to Paul Posluszny and Sean Lee. I'll bet neither of them were highly rated recruits, and they both turned out to be great players. Then you look at some of the five-star guys, and they couldn't play anywhere. It's not the ones you lose that beat you. It's the ones you take.''
"You never judge a recruiting class until two years into it,'' O'Brien said. "At that time, we'll be able to say we have a very productive group of football players who do the right thing off the field, which is what we feel we have right now.''