When Bill O’Brien took over as head coach of a reeling Penn State football program, he was given limited resources on the recruiting trail after the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
The Nittany Lions were facing a four-year bowl ban, a reduction in scholarships and the loss of the lure of playing for Joe Paterno. It has led to some expected struggles recruiting-wise and a couple of classes ranked outside of the top 40 in the nation, but O’Brien has secured a few big victories to show Penn State is still capable of competing for top talent in the East and Midwest.
The first victory came last year, when Penn State didn’t bring in a top-ranked recruiting class but did surprise many around the country by landing Christian Hackenberg, the No. 2 quarterback in the nation. Hackenberg, an elite prospect out of Virginia, chose to play in Happy Valley despite not being able to play for a Big Ten championship or in a bowl game for most of his college career. Hackenberg has been a hit, throwing for 1,672 yards and 11 touchdowns this season as a freshman.
The next big win arrived in September when Penn State’s scholarship reductions were reduced. Starting next season, the NCAA announced Penn State will receive 10 more scholarships, bringing their allotment from 65 to 75. Starting in 2016, PSU will again have 85 scholarships, the NCAA’s limit.
Those two events are enough to show that though disadvantaged, Penn State is still a threat to other schools in the Big Ten for Pennsylvania’s top talent and key prospects throughout the region.
Last Thursday the Nittany Lions proved it by beating out Ohio State for tight end Mike Gesicki, their 13th recruit in the class of 2014.
Gesicki, a 6-foot-6, 215-pound three-star recruit out of Southern Regional High School in New Jersey, had scholarship offers from Boston College, Wisconsin, Florida State and others but narrowed his decision down to two schools, Ohio State and Penn State, and two official visits.
Gesicki was in Columbus when Ohio State beat Wisconsin earlier this season and then watched Penn State knock off Michigan in four overtimes. On Thursday, he confirmed his decision with a tweet: “I’m so blessed, thankful, and joyful to announce that I am committed to The Pennsylvania State University! #WEARE #PENNSTATE.”
The Nittany Lions use tight ends as well as any team but already have talent and depth at that position. Jesse James, a sophomore, and Kyle Carter, a junior, are third and fourth on the team in catches, respectively. PSU also nabbed one of the top-ranked tight ends in the country, five-star Adam Breneman, in last year’s recruiting class.
Gesicki has company but could be yet another receiving threat at that position. According to Scout.com, Gesicki doesn’t have ideal speed but uses his size, body control and good hands to bully the linebackers and safeties that try to cover him. Tight ends with above-average size and athleticism who can be dangerous in the red zone have become the norm in the NFL, and it’s trickling down into the college ranks. Gesicki would have fit that mold for Urban Meyer but instead will become just another in a growing line of talented tight ends at Penn State.
And he shows that although the Nittany Lions likely won’t crack a top 20 recruiting class for a while, O’Brien is still savoring a few recruiting victories over the big boys like Ohio State and Michigan.
Key 2014 commits
The strength of Penn State’s 2013 class is at wide receiver, where the Nittany Lions have three four-star commitments (depending on the scouting service) already. The higher-ranked of the three is Chris Godwin, a 6-foot-2 receiver from Delaware who had the Buckeyes’ attention (and a scholarship offer) as well.
Joining him are De’Andre Thompkins, 5-foot-11, from North Carolina and Troy Apke, 6-foot-2, from Pittsburgh. The trio will add some targets for Hackenberg, who will be under center for at least two more seasons.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Ohio State blog at http://www.ohio.com/blogs/buckeye-blogging. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.