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Kavanaugh, Penn State have little margin for error in recruiting

| Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, 10:34 p.m.
Bill Kavanaugh serves as Penn State's assisting recruiting director. (Penn State Athletic Communications)
Bill Kavanaugh serves as Penn State's assisting recruiting director. (Penn State Athletic Communications)

Forget 40-yard dash times and statistics that are equally eye-popping. The question Bill O'Brien most frequently asks when the Penn State coach and his assistants are evaluating prospective recruits is this: “Is he a football player?”

The query goes right to the essence of recruiting — and accurately projecting whether 16- and 17-year-old kids will be mature enough physically and mentally to play at the next level.

No one is more important in helping Penn State answer such questions than assistant recruiting coordinator Bill Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh serves as the quarterback for Penn State recruiting. He is the link between O'Brien and the assistants who have been canvassing high schools all over Pennsylvania and in surrounding states. He also coordinates the student volunteers who are crucial to Penn State's recruiting efforts.

Kavanaugh's responsibilities are wide-ranging and they involve details that go unnoticed by fans who rabidly follow recruiting websites and messages boards. But his work is critical in helping Penn State secure the recruits that replenish the program's talent every year.

“It's not the ones you don't get who beat you,” Kavanaugh said late last week. “It's the ones you take that don't work out that beat you.”

That mantra is preached by longtime Nittany Lions assistant coach Ron Vanderlinden, and it has never been more applicable to Penn State.

The Nittany Lions are dealing with scholarship restrictions as a result of the NCAA sanctions that were levied against the football program last July. Penn State is allowed to sign only 15 players for its 2013 class — the maximum is 25 for most schools — and the NCAA punishment handed down in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal has further narrowed the margin for error the Nittany Lions have when it comes to a process that is already an inexact science.

“A lot of times you'll have a recruiting class you'll sign 25 kids and maybe six or seven of those kids don't pan out for you,” Penn State running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Charles London said. “We can't afford that luxury of signing a certain amount of guys and not having a quarter of them or so not work out so we just have to continue to do our homework.”

Quality despite lack of quantity

Penn State appears to have done just that with O'Brien's second recruiting class.

The Nittany Lions have received 12 verbal commitments with national signing day two weeks away, and they have put together a quality class despite the specter of the NCAA sanctions.

Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is considered a five-star recruit, and he headlines a class that also has a handful of highly regarded offensive and defensive linemen.

In addition, five players, including blue-chip tight end Adam Breneman, enrolled earlier this month. That technically makes them members of the 2012 class, but their presence allows Penn State to save its three remaining scholarships if it wants to be selective.

“That's definitely a top-40 class, and I never would have thought that when everything went down,” said national analyst Tom Lemming, who hosts a regular recruiting show on CBS. “(O'Brien) seems to be one of the hardest workers in the country.”

Kavanaugh and O'Brien talk or meet on a daily basis, and they plan everything from the next two days to the next two years. That is how involved recruiting is. It also speaks to what Kavanaugh calls “overlapping” recruiting cycles.

The coaches who have been on the road regularly since the 2012 season ended are nearing the end of this recruiting year, but they are also trying to make inroads with juniors and even scouting sophomores.

A significant part of that for a program with little margin for error is also talking to school principals and guidance counselors as well as a potential recruit's coaches.

Due diligence

The approach reflects O'Brien's NFL background since teams at the next level conduct exhaustive background checks in advance of the draft. At Penn State, it has never been more imperative that the school gathers as much information as possible before signing a player.

In 2014, for example, Penn State plans on signing one defensive tackle prospect. That illustrates the challenge that comes with recruiting while dealing with limited scholarships.

“One, he's got to be able to play,” Kavanaugh said. “Two, he's got to be able to stay in school, both academically and he can't be causing trouble. We're not going to take guys that aren't going to be good kids because we need these guys to stay around.”

Kavanaugh has a picture of the seniors who were honored before Penn State's 2012 regular-season finale in his office. It is a reminder of the importance of character when it comes to recruiting.

It is also why Kavanaugh is so thorough whether he is gathering information from coaches who are on the road recruiting, working closely with the student volunteers who log information into data bases and gather tape on prospective recruits or conducting his own study on how much speed a skill player needs to succeed at the major-college level.

Sifting through the details — and understanding them — is essential in recruiting. The seniors who provided the foundation for a team that went 8-4 last season but had been part of an unheralded recruiting class five years earlier are proof of that.

“One of the main reasons in my mind to have the (2012) season that we did was because we had good kids on the team,” Kavanaugh said.

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