One of the best quarterback prospects in the country, Christian Hackenberg could have had his pick of colleges from coast to coast, and, when the NCAA put Penn State on probation in July because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, a lot of other schools tried to convince him to give them a closer look.
"There were thoughts for a little while, but, ultimately, getting to sit down and think about it, get to talk to people who I trust - my parents, my coach, the guys I was committed with and Coach [Bill] O'Brien," Hackenberg, 247Sports.com's No. 1 quarterback this year, said. "Penn State was the place I was going to be, no matter what."
And that was that: Hackenberg was sticking to a verbal commitment he made to the Nittany Lions back in February of 2012.
Penn?State recruits Christian Hackenberg (left) and Adam Brenneman were at the Under Armour Bowl in Florida recently.
To see a top quarterback prospect stick by a coach who has worked with one of the top pro passers makes the decision a little easier to understand. Hackenberg is expected to sign his official letter-of-intent today along with 11 other future Lion teammates.
Five other incoming recruits, including All-American tight end Adam Breneman, already enrolled at University Park in the first week of January, and the group as a whole have all the major scouting services ranking Penn State's class in the top 40 nationally. Two even put the Lions in the top 25 despite the fact that the school's scholarships were cut and the coaches couldn't pitch the newcomers a chance for a run at a Big Ten or national title for three more years.
Amazingly, although the Lions did lose five recruits after the NCAA sanctions were announced - including highly rated tackle Dorian Johnson, cornerback Ross Douglas and receiver Will Fuller - nine stayed on board, and Central Dauphin linebacker Zayd Issah eventually recommitted.
"We're a really close recruiting class. I challenge anyone to try to find a recruiting class that's better friends or closer together than our recruiting class. I don't think you'll find one," Breneman said in a recent interview. "I think it's because what's happened. We all really bonded. We all came together. I think it speaks volumes about Coach O'Brien and his staff and how great they are."
"They were guys that knew what they wanted. They knew the reasons they wanted to come to Penn State," Lion recruiting coordinator Charles London said at a function in Tyrone on Saturday afternoon. "Nothing's changed at Penn State, and they know that. They can get a great education and play big-time college football. They see that. And we have a staff here that can prepare them to get to the next level. So I think they see a bit of a different picture."
The people most identified with painting that picture and holding things together were prep All-Americans Breneman, Hackenberg, Garrett Sickels and Brendan Mahon and Hershey offensive lineman Andrew Nelson, who comprised five of the seven verbal commitments Penn State got in the weeks immediately following signing day.
Of those early verbals, only Douglas will be signing elsewhere today.
"Christian and I would talk every single day, because it was such a crazy time," Breneman said in a December interview when asked to recount why he stuck with Penn State after the penalties were announced. "You know, we didn't commit to Penn State to play bowl games. That's the reality of it. I didn't commit to Penn State so I could say to myself I won a national championship. I committed to Penn State because of Bill O'Brien, because of his style of offense, because of my relationship with him and my relationship with the rest of the coaching staff. I committed because of the education you get at Penn State, which is one of the most powerful degrees in the world. I committed because of the Penn State fanbase and playing at Beaver Stadium.
"All that stuff is still there. So, I looked at it, and none of the reasons I committed had disappeared. Every reason I decided to go to Penn State in March is still there now."
Perhaps just as importantly, most of the players who committed early are still going to be there, too. Because of that, there have been few signs of a wavering through the announcement of the penalties, the 0-2 start to the season, the questions about O'Brien moving to the NFL after the season or the loss of defensive coordinator Ted Roof to Georgia Tech.
"Other than Will [Fuller], the core of us just went up this summer and got to sit down with Coach O'Brien and just reaffirmed our commitment and that we were going to stick through it," Hackenberg said. "I think those guys did a great job leading this class, getting guys to buy in with the new pickups that we had."
In fact, three of the four players Roof recruited from the deep South stayed despite his departure. Kasey Gaines, the safety from Georgia who took a couple of trips to Penn State and seemed to bond with the earlier recruits, made it clear almost immediately. Alabama defensive lineman Parker Cothen turned down a number of SEC schools that offered after he said he was going to Penn State and reportedly just made another unofficial visit over the weekend.
"We just got a bunch of really good, quality kids who were committed to what we were envisioning this program could be in the next couple of years," Hackenberg said.
When their schedules permitted, many of the group could be found together in the stands last fall, as the Lions finished 8-4.
"It's awesome to see, especially the development, how much better the players got," Breneman said. "If they did that much in just one year, given the circumstances, I'm excited to see what kind of things we can do next season."
There were a number of writers and analysts predicting the recruiting class would fall apart along with the program. Breneman thought eventually that turned into motivation for the Lion recruits.
"Everything that happened to Penn State kind of brought our recruiting class closer together, because it was really us against the world. Everyone was looking down upon Penn State, so us guys kind of had each other to talk to and each other to hold on to," Breneman said.
Now this recruiting class already is drawing comparisons to the Derrick Williams/Justin King class that turned the program around after the dark years of the early 2000s or the Mauti/Zordich class that kept things together on the field this season.
"Our class, for everything we've been through, I feel we do have a very talented class coming in," Hackenberg said. "I think this class has a chance to have that kind of impact. Building off of what the team did this year was huge. That really gave us some firepower to come in. People understand why we're there. I'm excited and honored to be compared to those classes."
"It speaks volumes about Coach O'Brien and his staff and how great they are," Breneman said. "We're already starting to see it, but I think we're going to continue to see a lot of good come from a lot of bad."