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PSU recruiting coordinator battles limited scholarships while coaching RBs

| Saturday, March 16, 2013, 10:20 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Charles London attempts to knock the ball away from running back Bill Belton during a practice session on Aug. 8, 2012, outside of Holuba Hall in University Park.

Charles London knew so little about his future boss that he printed out a picture of Bill O'Brien and took it with him to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. The graduate assistant coach referenced a different kind of snapshot as he drove O'Brien, Duke's new offensive coordinator, back to Durham.

London told O'Brien his dreams and aspirations of one day becoming a head coach, and he apparently made quite an impression.

“That first week he was trying to get settled, and he took the time to sit down and teach me the offense we were running at that time,” London recalled of first working for O'Brien in 2005, “and he sat down and talked to me before he talked to anybody else. He's always taken a great interest in me and a great interest in my career.”

O'Brien has more reason than ever to do both.

London is entering his second year as Penn State's running backs coach and recruiting coordinator. He is also one of several Nittany Lions coaches who has worked in the NFL, something that could help Penn State as it deals with roster limitations due to NCAA sanctions.

London served as O'Brien's assistant at Duke for a year, and O'Brien worked with him on reading defenses and taught him finer points such as how defensive line fronts correlate with pass coverage. That tutelage formed the foundation of an enduring friendship. It is also why London considers O'Brien a mentor as well as his boss.

“I was kind of a blank canvas (at Duke), and he shaped a lot of the ways that I thought,” said London, who played running back at Duke from 1994-96 and later returned to his alma mater as a graduate assistant. “I remember telling my father, ‘This guy's going to be a great head coach, and I want to work for him one day.'”

London achieved that goal when O'Brien hired him away from the Tennessee Titans in January 2012. London, who had also previously coached for the Bears, coaxed a 1,000-yard season out of little-known running back Zach Zwinak last season while also helping Penn State assemble a post-sanctions recruiting class that far exceeded expectations.

Spring practice starts Monday, and the 15 sessions between now and late April will provide O'Brien and his staff with something of a trial run as Penn State adjusts to a roster that won't exceed 75 scholarship players in the fall.

O'Brien, London and assistant head/wide receivers coach Stan Hixon experienced first-hand how shorter, more focused practices and position flexibility helped their respective NFL teams deal with rosters that were limited to 45 players on game days.

Some of those philosophies will be applied to Penn State as it deals with scholarship restrictions. O'Brien said that could translate into “guys playing two different or three different positions.”

“Some guys might have to return kicks, play corner maybe even play a little receiver,” O'Brien said. “That's not easy to find those guys, but that's part of recruiting and part of evaluating guys over winter workouts and spring practice.”

London, 37, is heavily involved in all three aspects.

As a running backs coach, he is demanding though not necessarily one who raises his voice to make a point, something he learned while working for former Bears coach Lovie Smith.

London also has proven to be effective when it comes to recruiting, and his outgoing personality makes him suited for that part of his job.

So do his organizational skills.

All it takes is one look at London's office in the Lasch Building to understand how he coaches and oversees Penn State's recruiting efforts.

The room is so orderly even the remote controls are lined up neatly on a corner of his desk.

London and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher are Penn State's primary recruiters in Western Pennsylvania, and both have been well received by area prep coaches.

Penn State has offered a scholarship to Mt. Lebanon wide receiver Troy Apke, and Blue Devils coach Mike Melnyk said he appreciates how London communicates and talks straight to him.

“Certain coaches go about things a certain way that let's you know they know what they're doing and know how to treat people,” Melnyk said.

What London is still learning when it comes to recruiting in Western Pennsylvania are the roads themselves. He is a Georgia native and is finding his way in an area that can be confusing even for natives.

“I still need a GPS,” London said with a laugh. “Pittsburgh is a hard city to get around, but I'm getting there.”

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at sbrown@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ ScottBrown_Trib.

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