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Crucial recruiting class awaits sanctioned Penn State

| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

His high school coach calls him a once in a generation if not a once-in-a-lifetime player. He is why Penn State's recruiting class is widely regarded as the best coach Bill O'Brien could have done under the circumstances.

And his name is neither Christian Hackenberg nor Adam Breneman.

The five-star quarterback and blue-chip tight end may headline Penn State's 2013 class. But Brendan Mahon may be just as critical to the recruiting haul that is Penn State's first since the NCAA sanctioned the football program in the aftermath of the Sandusky sex abuse scandal.

Mahon, a 6-5, 315-pounder, is one of three offensive line prospects expected to sign with Penn State Wednesday. For a program dealing with scholarship restrictions for at least the next four years, identifying the right offensive linemen to recruit will go a long toward Penn State remaining competitive while on probation.

“One thing that's going to be key going forward is how Penn State does in the trenches,” said national recruiting analyst Allen Wallace, the publisher of SuperPrep magazine.

The Nittany Lions are allowed to offer no more than 15 scholarships a year for the next four years — the maximum is normally 25 — and that leaves O'Brien virtually no margin for error. What makes that especially precarious is the difficulty in determining which offensive linemen will successfully make the jump from prep to major college football.

Penn State's own history illustrates why recruiting rankings often mean little when it comes to offensive linemen.

Scott Stratton, a tackle from Cincinnati, headlined Penn State's 1991 class, which is widely regarded as the best one put together by former coach Joe Paterno. Stratton washed out at Penn State after a couple of years, and one of the least heralded members of that class, Jeff Hartings, became an anchor on the line that helped the Nittany Lions go 12-0 in 1994.

Hartings also enjoyed a distinguished NFL career, winning a Super Bowl with the Steelers and twice making the Pro Bowl.

The stories of Stratton and Hartings are not uncommon, and the most heavily recruited offensive lineman on Penn State's current roster, guard Eric Shrive, appears ticketed for a reserve role in his fifth and final season in Happy Valley.

“The offensive line is a crapshoot,” Wallace said of recruiting linemen.

Penn State has to like its odds with Mahon, who stuck with the Nittany Lions even after the NCAA sanctions.

He started as a sophomore on a team that won a state championship in New Jersey's highest classification. He is athletic enough to dunk a basketball from a standing-still position.

“I've been coaching for 34 years and I haven't seen anybody like this,” Randolph coach Joe Lusardi said. “He's gifted and he's athletic. Who gets a 6-5, 330-pound kid? You set them up and run right behind them. He's a linebacker killer.”

Mahon, who played right tackle in high school and lined up as center in the All-American Bowl last month, is scheduled to sign his letter of intent Wednesday morning at Randolph with Lusardi and his parents by his side. He is one of 17 players who are expected to officially commit to Penn State — five, including Breneman, enrolled early — and give the Nittany Lions a more than respectable recruiting class.

“You've got to give their coaches a massive amount of credit,” Wallace said. “There's just not enough bodies to justify a rating that's top 30 in the country.”

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