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PSU class of '09 shaping up into something special

| Sunday, Jan. 2, 2005

Justin King was perplexed the day he heard a high school running back named Reggie Bush had decided to play college ball for Southern California.

Bush, a California native, was everybody's all-American. He had speed, moves and smarts -- and a sky-high stack of scholarship offers. Yet, he chose to stay close to home at USC, which had spent much of the previous 25 years stuck as an also-ran in a mediocre conference.

"When he did that, I was like, 'What's he going there for?' " King said. "Now, I look at it two years later and it's like, 'Oh, OK. Now I see the reason why he did that.' "

Bush, the centerpiece of USC's standout group of recruits in 2003, got a chance to play quickly and blossomed into a Heisman Trophy finalist as a sophomore. On Tuesday night, the top-ranked Trojans will face Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl with a chance to claim their second straight national championship.

See the logic behind Bush's choice• King does. And it's why the top-ranked recruit in Pennsylvania recently turned down offers from dozens of schools -- Southern Cal among them -- and said yes to Penn State.

"Some people have asked me, 'What are you going there for?' " King said with a laugh. "But I tell them that I know what I'm doing. When they start to see things unfold -- when they see the other players who are coming with me -- they're like, 'Ah, now I see what he's trying to do.' "

King, a cornerback at Gateway, wants to pull off the gridiron equivalent of raising the Titanic. The Nittany Lions have not put together a perfect season since 1994. In four of the past five years, they have not even qualified for a bowl game.

The good news is, King won't have to do it alone. He is part of what is shaping up as a blockbuster recruiting class for Penn State.

Three days before Christmas, the Nittany Lions got Derrick Williams, a wideout from Greenbelt, Md., who is considered the No. 1 recruit in the nation. The Lions could still line up another half-dozen players before National Letter of Intent signing day next month.

"When you get big-name guys like that, they can attract other players to come along," ESPN recruiting guru Tom Lemming said. "They give Penn State instant credibility.

"It's all about perception, and the perception right now is that something big is happening at Penn State."

Big enough to jump-start a stagnant program• Big enough to put the luster back on coach Joe Paterno's reputation and solidify his legacy?

"Justin and I, we were looking for a place where we can make our mark in history," Williams said matter-of-factly. "It's a pretty special class right now. And it's gonna be even more special when we get everybody there."

Bandwagon effect

King was impressed when Penn Hills quarterback Anthony Morelli dumped Pitt in favor of Penn State late in the recruiting process last year.

"That influenced me," King said. "I know Morelli's good from playing against him. He had all the scholarships in the world; he could've gone anywhere he wanted. When he went to Penn State, I started thinking to myself, 'He must see something's going right.' "

Williams' decision last month was broadcast live nationwide on ESPNews, and ignited an instant buzz in Internet chat rooms. Fans weren't the only ones watching -- which is why Williams boldly invited top recruits from around the nation to come with him to Happy Valley.

Williams has a lot of players' numbers stored on his cell phone speed dial, and he keeps spreading the message.

"I'm trying to do my part," Williams said. "We're going to take this sleeping lion to the national championship."

Scroll down a bit in Williams' phone book and Jared Gaither's name will pop up. Jamie Newberg, national recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said Gaither (6-foot-9, 300 pounds) likely is this year's best offensive line prospect.

"I really think Derrick's gonna help (Penn State) swing a couple of kids who might be on the fence," Newberg said, adding that he would not be surprised to see Gaither tumble into Paterno's yard.

Gaither, who played with Williams at Eleanor Roosevelt High, signed with Maryland last year but was an academic non-qualifier. After spending a year at Chatham (Va.) Military Academy, he is free to hook up with any college.

"I think Penn State might have a pretty good chance with Jared," Williams said with a sly grin. "Now, I'm not saying that's where he's going to go -- but it could happen. I'm trying to put a bug in his ear about it."

Other unsigned players who are considering Penn State include defensive ends Walker Ashley (the son of former Lions standout Walker Lee Ashley) and Melvin Alaeze (who is rated No. 1 at his position and is another close friend of Williams'), linebacker Brian Cushing (a five-star prospect from New Jersey), wideout Todd Nolen, tight end Jonathan Hannah and defensive tackle Sean McKeen.

A handful of mid-level prospects latched on with Penn State in the wake of announcements by Williams and King.

Barely 24 hours after Williams made his choice, Knowledge Timmons, a cornerback from William Penn High in York County, did the same.

Penn State has never had much of a recruiting presence in California. Yet, just a few days after King tugged on a Lions cap during his news conference, Lydell Sargeant of Cabrillo High in Lompoc, Calif., followed suit.

Sargeant and King used to play together at Gateway before Sargeant's family moved to the West Coast.

Another recent Penn State pickup, Upper St. Clair linebacker Sean Lee, also is friends with King.

"I've always had the feeling that, wherever Derrick and I go, other people would want to play there with us," King said.

Both King and Williams already graduated early from high school and will enter Penn State when the spring semester begins this month.

That will give them an early jump on playing a lot as true freshmen, as happened this season for linebacker Dan Connor. It also could give Penn State a boost in the recruiting home stretch when some blue-chippers make their final on-campus visits.

"You cannot underestimate the significance of Justin and Derrick committing -- and committing early, that's the big thing," Newberg said. "When Penn State is hosting kids in January, Justin and Derrick probably will be an integral part of the recruiting process."

Not everyone believes King and Williams will have as much pull on other recruits.

"A lot of fans talk about that bandwagon effect, but it usually amounts to a lot of wishful thinking," said Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for Scout.com.

"These are strong-willed youngsters, and there are so many things they are considering. They'll do what's in their best interests. I'd be surprised if any four- or five-star recruits go to Penn State just because of Williams or King."

JoePa's still got it

Then again, Penn State doesn't have to rely solely on marquee players to dazzle potential recruits. It has flashy facilities, a devoted and far-flung fan base, membership in an elite conference ... not to mention that old-school coach with the thick glasses.

"Joe Paterno showed me and my family a lot of love and care," said Williams, who also met with heavyweights such as Urban Meyer, Steve Spurrier, Bob Stoops and Pete Carroll.

"The guys like Paterno, who are living legends in the coaching business, I don't care about what they did last season, record-wise," Newberg said. "They'll be naming trophies and fields after those guys someday, so kids still want to play for 'em."

Still, the way Paterno was able to close the deal with King and Williams stunned many veteran recruitniks who thought the 78-year-old coach was losing his touch.

"The decision of Derrick Williams, especially, was a huge shock," Wallace said. "This is new ground for Penn State."

It also marks a subtle change in recruiting philosophy. In recent years, Penn State relied heavily on early commitments, locking up high school juniors in a long-term gamble that they hoped would pan out.

This year, Paterno anted up at the high-stakes table, going down to the wire for top players.

"I always wondered why they made early offers to so many average players," Lemming said. "Now, they've decided to go after the best players again."

The group Paterno is assembling could be the fastest in Penn State history. Williams ran a 4.24 in the 40-yard dash last spring. King has been clocked at 4.25. Timmons has 4.40 speed and is the PIAA champ in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.

Guys with that much juice usually end up at Florida or Miami. Or, if they do come to the rough-and-tumble Big Ten, it's usually Ohio State (Ted Ginn Jr.) or Michigan (Steve Breaston) that gobbles them up.

"We needed some guys like that. We needed some speed," Morelli said. "I can't wait to get out there and start working with these guys. We'll be able to put points on the board. We'll be tough."

Morelli said he expects to start at quarterback next season. Michael Robinson, who will be a senior, could remain full time at wideout to ease the learning process for Williams and the other rookies.

"As far as Coach Paterno, he's a great coach, and I don't see him going anywhere, at least not soon," Morelli said. "He's doing a heck of a job recruiting, getting all these great players."

A year ago, Paterno neglected to take his NCAA-mandated recertification exam on time and was temporarily barred from making home visits. But this year, according to Penn State sources as well as several high school players and coaches, Paterno was more hands-on and re-energized on the recruiting trail.

"He's showed he's still up to the task," Wallace said. "Maybe he just figured out that nobody (on his staff) can do it better than him."

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