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Blue-chip recruits help embattled Penn State stay the course

| Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 7:06 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Bill O'Brien greets quarterback recruit Christian Hackenberg as tight end recruit Adam Breneman looks on before the start of the Nittany Lion's game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Beaver Stadium in University Park on October 27, 2012. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

Michael Mauti's playing career at Penn State may be over, but the outside linebacker apparently feels his work is not yet complete.

That explains why he talked with Christian Hackenberg, a Nittany Lions recruit, when the blue-chip quarterback from Virginia and others took their official visit to Penn State a couple of weeks ago.

“He really emphasized that it's our time now,” Hackenberg said.

That could be seen as a tremendous burden, continuing the work of Mauti and the other seniors who kept Penn State's football program together during the most soul-searching of times. But the challenge has been embraced by the 18 players who have verbally committed to the Nittany Lions and officially can sign with Penn State in early February.

That is particularly true in the case of Hackenberg and Harrisburg-area tight end Adam Breneman. Each could play at any school in the country. Both stayed true to Penn State even though their careers will play out as the Nittany Lions deal with the brunt of NCAA sanctions.

“Most high school kids, I think, would kind of run from a thing like that,” said Breneman, who caught 72 passes for 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior at Cedar Cliff High School but missed his senior season after tearing his ACL in the summer. “Our class kind of said, ‘Listen, we're going to take this head on, support this school. We're going to keep our word.' What would it say about us if we turned our back when things got tough?”

That sensibility is appreciated by those who are leaving the program on solid footing after leading Penn State to an 8-4 record in 2012.

“I want to personally thank them,” outgoing defensive tackle Jordan Hill said of the recruits who have committed to Penn State. “No matter what they do or how good they become it doesn't matter. They're coming in at this time, and that's big enough for me to thank them.”

Staying the course

Breneman called coach Bill O'Brien the day the sanctions were announced and told him he was still committed to Penn State but that they needed to talk.

Less than a week later, Breneman, Hackenberg, defensive lineman Garrett Sickels, offensive linemen Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson and wide receiver Will Fuller visited Penn State.

O'Brien, who was working two fronts in trying to keep players from fleeing the program, met with the recruits and their parents and then left them alone in the Lasch Building.

At that point no one could have predicted whether the first-year coach's early recruiting successes would unravel or whether O'Brien had just preserved the nucleus of his first class.

That is how dramatically the ground beneath Penn State football had shifted since the NCAA had hit the program with a four-year ban on postseason play and taken away 60 scholarships over a four-year period in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

“I kind of equated it to you're engaged for eight months, and all of the sudden you find out something terrible about your fianceé,” said Hackenberg's father, Erick.

“There were a lot of questions about what didn't we know,” said Breneman's father, Brian.

That question formed the foundation of the heartfelt discussion that ensued after O'Brien made a second recruiting pitch to the players who already had committed to Penn State.

“Everyone had tears in their eyes, everyone was very emotional, everyone had something to say,” recalled Erick Hackenberg. “In the end, we all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘There's kind of a reason for us to be here.' ”

The recruits and their parents wanted to be part of the solution at Penn State. The players went to O'Brien's office and told him they were committed ... to Florida.

The “gotcha” moment preceded the hugs that O'Brien doled out to the players.

Of the six who re-committed July 28, only one had second thoughts. Fuller changed his commitment from Penn State to Notre Dame.

“Every time we talk to (O'Brien), he always thanks us for our commitment because I think he really appreciates what our commitment has done for the program through the last couple of months,” Breneman said. “He always stresses to us not only are we making a commitment to him but he's also making a commitment to us.”

A higher purpose

The future of Penn State football sat in the weight room at Cedar Cliff High School and talked about his excitement of playing for O'Brien — and in an offense that made a star out of tight end Kyle Carter in 2012 and has an emerging star at the position in South Allegheny graduate Jesse James.

His mother monitors his Twitter account, and before one of his final high school exams — he will graduate early so he can enroll at Penn State next month — Breneman was hoping he could correctly identify all 50 states for a geography test.

The 6-foot-4 Breneman, though, also has a maturity and sense of purpose about him that is best seen in the Catch the Cure campaign he led against ALS.

Breneman helped raise more than $160,000 for ALS research — eight times more than his original goal. His commitment to finding a cure for the debilitating motor disease that afflicts a family friend provides insight into why he has stuck with O'Brien.

“I didn't commit to Penn State to play in bowl games,” Breneman said. “I committed because of Coach O'Brien and his offensive system, his coaching staff, Beaver Stadium, the fans, the degree. All of that stuff is still there. I just couldn't picture myself at another school other than Penn State.”

Breneman and Hackenberg, who are close friends, have tried convincing others the same thing.

They stay in touch with the prospects Penn State is recruiting, selling them on, among other things, the tight bond the incoming players have because of Penn State's circumstances.

Hackenberg has been talking to Clairton star Tyler Boyd, who became friends with Hackenberg after the two were teammates in June at the Rivals 100 Five-Star Challenge camp.

It is all part of continuing what players such as Mauti started when they kept Penn State's program from coming apart.

“They did something I don't think any other group of seniors in the country could have done,” said Hackenberg, who threw for 2,411 yards and 24 touchdowns last season at Fork Union Military Academy.

The desire to do something similar is what binds the new Nittany Lions to the ones who are departing.

“I think we're playing for putting Penn State back on the map where it belongs,” Hackenberg said.

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com.

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