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O'Brien optimistic about Penn State's recruiting class

| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 9:33 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Bill O'Brien talks with quarterback Steven Bench (12) during the pre-game against Temple at Beaver Stadium in University Park on September 22, 2012.

UNIVERSITY PARK — An assistant coach walked into Bill O'Brien's office Wednesday morning to deliver the news.

Analysts, he told O'Brien, generally agreed that Penn State had landed the fourth-best recruiting class in the Big Ten.

The coach might as well have told his boss how the value of the krone was doing in Norway.

“Who cares who's one, two, and three?” O'Brien said Wednesday after Penn State signed 12 recruits to go with the five who enrolled early. “Who knows? I don't know. I just know that I feel good about the players that we got here in this class.”

That sentiment pretty much summed up O'Brien's first post-NCAA sanctions class: He probably couldn't have done better given the circumstances, but it will be a couple of years before the class can be fairly evaluated.

Signing day proved to be relatively stress-free at Penn State. The 12 players who had verbally committed, including five-star quarterback Christian Hackenberg, signed long before the sun set.

Hackenberg and tight end Adam Breneman, who graduated from high school early and is already at Penn State, headline a class that has received solid reviews from pundits. The class also includes highly touted offensive lineman Brendan Mahon and defensive end Garrett Sickels and a legacy player in running back Richy Anderson.

Hackenberg is the most coveted prep quarterback to sign with Penn State since Tony Sacca in 1988, and O'Brien indicated Hackenberg will be given a chance to succeed the graduated Matt McGloin as the team's starting signal-caller.

Sophomore Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson, a junior college product who enrolled at Penn State last month, will compete for the job when spring drills commence March 18. O'Brien said he is unlikely to name a starter after spring practice, which would provide an opening for Hackenberg.

“We feel really good about our quarterbacks room right now,” said O'Brien, who also added three invited walk-ons to his stable of quarterbacks, including former Pine-Richland standout Austin Whipple.

Hackenberg and Breneman helped keep Penn State's class together after the NCAA punished the football program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

A group of recruits and their parents met with O'Brien on July 28, less than a week after the sanctions were announced.

O'Brien said he answered “75 to 100” questions in the team meeting room. The six recruits and their parents talked after O'Brien left them alone, and they pledged to stick with Penn State.

Five of those players — Hackenberg, Breneman, Mahon, Sickels and offensive lineman Andrew Nelson — signed with Penn State and formed the foundation of the recruiting class.

O'Brien lauded the character of the recruits who will bear the brunt of the sanctions that still include a three-year postseason ban and the loss of more than 30 scholarships. O'Brien said the class also serves as a template for future ones when Penn State likely will have to recruit with greater restrictions.

“We will never recruit a kid who we don't think is a high-character kid who can't succeed here,” recruiting coordinator and running backs coach Charles London said. “Even before the sanctions, that was one of our goals. Coach wanted good kids who could come here and succeed athletically and academically, and that hasn't changed.”

Notes: Penn State officially added Central Florida to its 2013 schedule. It will host UCF on Sept. 14, as the Golden Knights replace Virginia on the schedule. Penn State and UCF are talking about playing a game in Orlando, Fla., in 2014 or 2015. ... Tight end Matt Lehman and safety Ryan Keiser have been put on scholarship, O'Brien said.

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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