Penn State has signed larger and more decorated recruiting classes than the 2013 version, and brought in more big names. But the program has never faced NCAA sanctions, including scholarship reductions and postseason probation. Under the circumstances, the 17-member recruiting class PSU signed Wednesday might be one of the most impressive in team history. Penn State brought in star power like quarterback Christian Hackenberg and tight end Adam Breneman, retained most of its top recruits and addressed several needs. Head coach Bill O'Brien and his assistants have received a lot of praise for their first recruiting class of the sanction era, and deservedly so.
ESPN.com caught up with O'Brien on Wednesday to discuss the class.
How did you guys keep this class together with all the challenges you had?
Bill O'Brien: I think it has a lot to do with two groups of people. Really the assistant coaches here, and then the prospects and their families that we signed. We started early on these guys, and we began to develop relationships with these guys right when I was hired here. And then we just began to keep grinding out those relationships. We never missed a phone call, we never missed an opportunity to talk to somebody that was influential in this young man's life. You have to give a lot of credit to our assistant coaches, and then give a lot of credit to these guys and their families who stuck with us.
Was there ever a point where you started to worry, or did you have faith all along that you'd keep the group together?
BO'B: I was certainly concerned when the sanctions came out. That day in July, I was definitely concerned. What happened was a group of guys who were committed to us, about eight guys, they drove up here to State College and they met with us that weekend, maybe two days after the sanctions came out, and that was a very productive meeting. They reaffirmed their commitment to me and to our football program. So that was when I began to say, 'As long as we work at it and we stay with these guys and we stay committed and they stay committed, we'll be OK.' Right after that, it got a little bit better.
How did the season itself affect keeping guys on board or bringing in interest from other recruits?
BO'B: Winning always helps. Any time you can go out and win eight out of your last 10 games -- we were on TV all the time, or these guys were actually at the game and they saw that atmosphere, that winning locker room and the atmosphere at Beaver Stadium -- that's a very positive thing for any football program.
What's the significance of Christian signing with you guys at the quarterback spot?
BO'B: It's really important. At the end of the day, Christian comes from a great family and he's just a really good person who has got a lot of talent and is going to come in here and make us a better football program. It's important that all these other guys, not just Christian, stayed committed to us. That was such a big, big thing for us. We owe a lot to those guys and their families. We're proud that they stayed with us.
How does he fit what you want to do on offense?
BO'B: He definitely fits what we're looking for. He's a tall guy who's athletic. He's an accurate passer, he's smart, he's competitive, he's made plays in big games, he's run 2-minute drills in high school to win games. So we feel really good about him. We felt good about him right from the start. He was the No. 1 guy we went after, and we were able to get him. It says a lot about him, and it says a lot about us. He fits our system to a T.
You signed another quarterback in Tyler Ferguson. What does he bring, and why did you pursue him?
BO'B: We feel good about the quarterback room right now. It's definitely young. Whoever plays quarterback for us next year will be really a first-time player in college. But Tyler Ferguson is another tall guy, an athletic guy, an accurate passer, has played a little bit of junior-college football, so he has some experience playing with older guys. He's a very competitive guy, a very focused guy already, you can see that. With Christian, Tyler and then obviously Steven Bench, who has been here for a year, we feel really good about that room. That's a good, young room for us.
What were some of the other needs on offense? You have a lot at tight end but bring in Adam Breneman. Offensive line, you signed a couple guys as well.
BO'B: We felt that we wanted to bring in one wide receiver, and that was DaeSean Hamilton. We felt really good about that guy. He was a top target for us for a long time. We went down to Virginia and were able to secure him, so we feel good there. We felt that making sure that we signed three offensive linemen, two tackles and a guard, was really important. We feel like [Tanner] Hartman can play guard or tackle, so we're good there, and we feel like Brendan Mahon can play center or both guard spots. And then obviously Andrew Nelson. Breneman was really important. We felt like he was the type of tight end who could really make us a better offense, so that was big. Richy Anderson has come in here and worked really hard, he's here already, and we feel like he's got a good future at running back/slot receiver. And then on defense, we had to get some DBs and we did. We got a decent number of DBs, tall, rangy guys who can run. So we feel good there. Defensive line, we filled three needs there, feel really good there. Linebacker-wise, two guys with [Brandon] Bell and Zayd [Issah], feel good about those guys. We couldn't sign 25 guys, but we definitely filled the immediate needs.
The secondary, is that just a numbers thing? Do any of those guys have a chance to compete right away?
BO'B: It's a much better situation, numbers wise, than it was. And I do think there's a couple guys that can probably come in and help us right away. I don't know who they are exactly, but Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith, those guys are here right now. So maybe the fact they're here and in our strength and conditioning program, they're in spring practice, maybe that gives them a chance to help us next year.
In a perfect world, would you redshirt Christian and let him develop, or do you want to see if he can help you this season?
BO'B: We have to play the best guy, whoever that guy is. He has to run the team the best and understands the system the best and takes care of the football the best, then he's the guy who's going to be the starting quarterback. That's a long process of spring practice, and for Christian, it's the summer conditioning and then the training camp. We'll play the best guy.
This is your first go-round in the new reality of recruiting [with sanctions]. Do you feel more comfortable with it? Do you have a better idea of what you need to do going forward to keep the program on track?
BO'B: I feel a lot more comfortable than I did a year ago. It had changed a lot in the five years since I had been [in college football]. I started to feel a lot more comfortable about the process and the rules and everything. I think there's a lot of things I can personally do to improve, just like all of us here try to improve every day.
Penn State has been a national program. Do you think you can still recruit nationally in areas outside of Pennsylvania and the surrounding states?
BO'B: We have to do a great job of filling the bulk of this roster with guys from that 300-mile, 400-mile driving distance. That's No. 1. But I also think we can go down into certain places in the South where we have connections, or maybe where we have a good Penn State fan base, and be able to attract some guys. We did that in Alabama and Florida and Georgia. But again, the bulk of the roster has to come from the Northeast.
You're bringing in a lot of run-on guys. How significant will they be for you from a depth standpoint?
BO'B: It's huge for us. It's really big. What I've found about that is that there are many, many guys, especially in the state of Pennsylvania but also in the surrounding states, that have grown up dreaming of playing at Penn State, and who maybe even have scholarship offers to other great schools, but who want to have the chance to play at Penn State. And that's what they're doing. We feel really good about the direction of that run-on program.