Bill O'Brien ready for challenge
New Penn State coach making an immediate impact with recruits, looking to the future
Adam Breneman (Camp Hill, Pa./Cedar Cliff) grew up wondering what it would be like to play football at Penn State. One of the nation's top junior prospects, Breneman, like most of the high school football prospects from Pennsylvania, anxiously awaited to hear who would take over the Nittany Lions.
When Breneman learned it was New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, there may not have been a happier person in the state.
"I am very excited about the hire of Coach O'Brien, knowing what he's done in New England," said Breneman, an Under Armour All-American tight end who has offers from Penn State, Florida State, Notre Dame and many other top programs. "I got a chance to watch them play a few times. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are two of my favorite tight ends. To see the things they do I don't think there's a better hire for me."
Eugene Lewis was not actively looking around. He was not taking any other official visits.
Not that anyone would have blamed him if he was, though. The four-star receiver committed to Penn State in August, and, along with Penn State's other Class of 2012 commitments, was in limbo for nearly two months as Penn State sought a replacement for ousted Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno. Lewis could have easily switched to Oregon or Virginia Tech, a pair of teams playing in BCS games that were among his finalists and have coaches firmly entrenched at their respective program.
But Lewis (Plymouth, Pa./Wyoming Valley West) stuck it out with Penn State, and said he now knows he made the right decision after meeting new coach Bill O'Brien over the weekend.
"I was stressing about who's going to be there. Will I have a good relationship with the new coaches? But definitely after that trip it sealed the deal for me," Lewis said. "I think we can accomplish big things at Penn State, and I think Coach O'Brien will be great."
The Nittany Lions have lost four commitments -- including both ESPNU 150 prospects -- since Paterno was fired in November in the wake of a sexual-abuse scandal.
Lewis said he thinks the bleeding has stopped after nearly all of the Lions' remaining 15 commitments made it to State College this past weekend.
"I think it helped out a lot with getting everyone comfortable," Lewis said. "I think the guys committed are pretty happy with the decision now."
Added two-star Jake Kiley, who drove nearly 10 hours to visit Penn State this weekend: "He said he wants all of us commits to ride with him. He's trying to move the program forward."
Firming up the Lions' commitments is objective No. 1 for O'Brien and the new staff, but right behind is keeping the state's top uncommitted prospect within Pennsylvania's borders. Four-star Jeannette (Pa.) High School safety Demetrious Cox visited Penn State this weekend after originally planning a trip to Ohio State.
Cox was high on the Lions before the university and program was rocked by an unprecedented scandal, but Cox kept the Lions on his board, biding his time until a new staff was in place.
Having met O'Brien in person for the first time, Cox said he got a good vibe from the new leader of the Lions.
"I'm getting a positive feel from Coach O'Brien and the staff," he said.
His major concern remains: What will happen at Penn State over the next few months? But Cox said such questions did not come up this weekend while visiting with O'Brien.
"All he said was he wasn't Joe Paterno," Cox said. "He was Coach O'Brien and he was going to get things rolling, and do it off of Penn State's tradition."
Having O'Brien on campus Sunday -- it was up in the air whether he would make it to State College this weekend after the Patriots' playoff game -- was a big recruiting tool for the Lions this weekend, but not as much as not having him Saturday. The Patriots, led by coordinator O'Brien, put on an offensive showcase Saturday night in the Patriots' 45-point effort against one of the league's better defenses.
One prospect who kept a close eye on that game was ESPNU 150 Watch List member Adam Breneman. On the Patriots' fourth offensive play, the Pats handed the ball off to tight end Aaron Hernandez, immediately catching the eye of Breneman, one of the country's top junior tight ends.
"I just texted my coach about that," Breneman joked after seeing Hernandez lead the Patriots in rushing.
All kidding aside, Breneman, who lives about 90 minutes from Penn State's campus, really likes what he sees from O'Brien's offense in New England, and it has the Lions among the early favorites for the recruit who holds 22 offers, including one from Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State.
"He finds ways to create mismatches," said Breneman, who will visit Penn State after signing day. "I'm looking forward to meeting him."
All indications are O'Brien passed the first of many tests with the recruits over the next two weeks that lead up to signing day. He made a big impression with the commits, the targets and the future.
"He's very intense and you can see the determination to be successful," Lewis said. "You want that in a coach.
"You know he's ready to do great things at Penn State."
-- Jared Shanker
"It's an exciting time while in a real tough situation," O'Brien said. "The No. 1 thing that everyone must understand is that this staff and this team will be about integrity, honesty and hard work. We will uphold the standards of Penn State. We were not here when that all happened. It's time to move forward. There are people here investigating what happened. We are here to coach a program and win championships the Penn State way."
Some were upset that Penn State went with someone with no ties to the program. Others questioned hiring someone without previous head coaching experience. But O'Brien has worked his way up the coaching ranks, learning lessons from seasoned pros such as Bill Belichick, George O'Leary and Ralph Friedgen. Everyone has to get that first shot, and while O'Brien has come in extraordinary circumstances, it's one he has earned.
"Billy is someone that has worked extremely hard at his trade," said O'Leary, the head coach at Central Florida. "He has been in a lot of winning programs, and I always envisioned him being very successful. He's learned so much from a lot of really good people. But he has some big shoes to fill, and those shoes are Joe Paterno's. It's going to be difficult, especially with the problems up there. That compounds things and it makes it harder. And he's a first-time head coach and he's going to have to make some tough decisions along the way."
But the qualities O'Brien displays are what made him a good choice for the Nittany Lions.
"Penn State is getting a great leader and a guy that has been successful at every level," said Ted Roof, the Nittany Lions' new defensive coordinator. Roof worked with O'Brien under O'Leary at Georgia Tech and O'Brien was the offensive coordinator when Roof was the coach at Duke. In other words, he knows O'Brien as well as anyone.
"He's very articulate and communicates really well with kids. Billy has a real good feel for people and a guy that will be passionate about being the leader of this program. He's the total package," Roof said. "We have known each other a long time and if there's one thing about Billy is that he's genuine and a guy people can trust and believe in."
In recruiting, that's half the battle. He'll need to build relationships and mend some relationships that might have been wounded through the recent scandal. The first recruiting class is always the most difficult to assemble. Add to that the fact that O'Brien is still coaching in New England and there will be some trying times leading up to national signing day.
"I am trying to get ready [for playoff games] and had to put together a brand new staff," O'Brien said. "We are behind and have been here only a few days. We have a lot of work to do. We definitely have to keep the guys we have [committed]. I have watched all their film and like that group a lot. When it's time, we have to get out in the state and get out in the region and work it. We have to let everyone know that we are still in the market for good football players. I love what we have on defense. We need some [offensive] linemen, a quarterback and a running back. We need some guys, but they have to be the right guys."
The Nittany Lions have 15 commits, including their first since O'Brien took over, New Rochelle (N.Y.) Worcester Academy three-star defensive back Jordan Lucas. He committed to Penn State on Monday.
O'Brien and his staff meet every night via conference call. Official visits are going on and his coaches are on the road recruiting. First impressions will go a long way.
"I have known Billy because he recruited our school when he was at Georgia Tech and Duke," said Jeff Weachter, the coach at Harrisburg (Pa.) Bishop McDevitt. "He's a guy that I have always been very impressed with. He's a good guy with a lot of energy. And he's putting together an impressive staff. And remember one thing, they are still Penn State. It's Penn State. I think they will do very well in recruiting in the years to come. And I expect them to be much more aggressive in recruiting than what we saw before."
O'Brien has put together a notable staff, including Larry Johnson, a holdover from the Paterno staff who is one of the nation's best recruiters. In addition, he's bringing in four coaches who have won national championships at four different programs: Roof (Auburn), wide receiver coach Stan Hixon (LSU), offensive line coach Mac McWhorter (Texas) and linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden (Colorado).
And if New England were to win the Super Bowl, a shiny ring on O'Brien's finger wouldn't hurt when it came to recruiting.
"That staff has a track record of winning on the big stage and national championships," Breneman said. "It makes Penn State even more attractive. The only guys I know are Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden. Once I get to meet the rest of the staff I'll have a better feel. From their past track record it's very exciting that they won at different places and won national championships."
Penn State has always been known to play great defense. Now the Nittany Lions have an offensive-minded coach in O'Brien, who has helped New England lead the NFL in points per game, helped Tom Brady to a 5,000-yard passing season and has them one win away from playing in the Super Bowl. Recruits notice that type of thing.
"The Penn State offense hasn't been able to succeed in past years," said Plymouth (Pa.) Wyoming Valley West four-star WR commit Eugene Lewis. "Since he's coming, he'll be able to open up the offense a lot. I think it's a blessing and a good situation. They need guys to make big plays. Now I'm sure that Coach O'Brien will put guys in the right situation. He will put everybody in the best position to make that best play and use everyone's talents the way they should."
Still, that doesn't mean it will be a seamless transition. O'Brien hasn't coached in college since 2006, when he was with Roof at Duke. Lots of things have happened since then.
"I have been in the pros for five years and I can't believe how much recruiting has changed," O'Brien said. "You have different rules and you even watch tape differently. There's YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and all that stuff. We didn't have that five years ago. I have to really get caught up with this technology stuff."
And let's face it, not every recruit is going to be excited to have Penn State visit.
"The Penn State coaches are coming down to see me even though I am not too fond of what happened there," said Trotwood (Ohio) Madison safety target Bam Bradley said recently.
But O'Brien insists that all he can do it work hard, build relationships and look to the future. And it's worked well so far.
"The parents have been great, and I have spoken with every commitment," O'Brien said. "There has been no backlash but everyone has to understand that we were not here then.
"I couldn't have asked for a better job and place than this. We have been well received. Sure, it will be a tough transition and I have only really on campus a few days. I know what a special place Penn State is."
Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.