Into the Lions' den

With Penn State recruiting hampered by sanctions, opposing colleges move in

Originally Published: August 14, 2012
By Jared Shanker | ESPN RecruitingNation

If Pittsburgh is known as the Steel City, then just 136 miles east in the heart of Pennsylvania lies the Steal City -- better known as State College.

Whether it's transfers, unsigned commitments or freshmen yet to play a down, programs from L.A. to the shadows of New York, from the Great Lakes to the Shenandoah Valley, are moving in on Penn State and plucking its players and pledges.

Stealing? That may be a bit harsh. Other teams are merely playing by the rules.

Till now, the targets have been players already on Penn State's campus or committed to join by 2013, though. So what is the next move for opposing programs?

Coaches are taking out their maps and strategizing an invasion in college football's version of the board game Risk. The "X" has been drawn on Penn State, and coaches are lining their infantry and cannons to move in on the Nittany Lions' recruiting stomping grounds: the football-fertile Pennsylvania and Mid-Atlantic.

California, Florida and Texas are the traditional talent-rich states. Georgia and Ohio probably round out the top five. Sitting at sixth or seventh, however, is Pennsylvania. This past signing day, 23 BCS programs signed at least one prospect from the Keystone State.

[+] EnlargeDorian Johnson
Scott Fink for ESPN.comDorian Johnson reopened his recruitment after the Penn State sanctions.
"This area is recruited heavily across the country," said Aaron Krepps, the coach at Belle Vernon (Pa.), where ESPN 150 offensive tackle and former Penn State commit Dorian Johnson resides. "The Big Ten, the Big East and, now with Pitt going, the ACC, and West Virginia going to the Big 12 -- there's a lot of conferences recruiting this area."

With a four-year bowl ban and massive scholarship reductions dealing a major blow to Penn State's ability to recruit on the level it is accustomed to, the teams already recruiting Pennsylvania are looking to increase their imprint. Quantifying just how much the sanctions will hurt Penn State is tough to determine at the moment, said Ryan Dorchester, West Virginia's coordinator of recruiting operations.

"There is an impact, but it is hard to really tell right now just how much," Dorchester said. "I think it will be a lot easier to assess how recruits are going to respond to the sanctions in February as opposed to August."

Dorchester said West Virginia will not negatively recruit against Penn State but also won't shy away from the fact Penn State is hurting.

"We do not try and go out to negatively recruit kids; however, we present the facts to kids and let them make their own decision," Dorchester said. "If a prospect wants to play in a bowl and compete for a conference and national championship over the next four years, they may want to look at other places besides Penn State."

West Virginia is a major player for recruits in Western Pennsylvania, where the Nittany Lions also have to make up for the loss of former assistant coach Tom Bradley, a beloved figure in the Pittsburgh area. Bradley recruited nearly every prospect Penn State was after in Western Pennsylvania.

Don Short, the athletic director at Hopewell (Aliquippa, Pa.), which has sent numerous players to BCS schools including Penn State and Pitt, feels that could have an effect with coaches in the area.

"Tom was a very standup guy and very well-networked. I can honestly say he played by the rules, whereas others would at times try and bend them," Short wrote in an email. "Losing a person like Tom has a major impact on PSU."

Throughout the state, how much a difference it will make over the course of the full period of sanctions remains to be seen, not only because of the penalties but also because of the previous Penn State staff's inability to land many of the top in-state players. Since 2006, the Nittany Lions have been downright bad at getting Pennsylvania's best players to come to the state's largest university and a program with one of the biggest fan bases nationally.

According to ESPN RecruitingNation's state rankings, since 2006, Penn State has landed just five players in the top five of the Pennsylvania rankings for that respective class. That comes out to five top-five in-state prospects out of 40. Penn State landed just 13 out of the top 80 during that same span and just 21 out of 140 of the top 20 since 2007.

None of the top four uncommitted 2013 prospects in Pennsylvania - all of whom are in the top 11 -- are seriously considering Penn State either.

When compared to a program such as Virginia Tech -- another big-time program with a strong recruiting base and a fellow BCS team in state -- the numbers look even worse for the Lions' recruiting efforts over the last eight classes.

The Hokies secured seven of the top-five players in each class since 2006, 21 of the top 10 and 48 of the top 20.

In all, the Hokies have landed 184 players since 2006, and 111 (60 percent) were from within Virginia's borders. Penn State has landed 151 players since 2006, and 48 (32 percent) were from Pennsylvania. The Hokies registered 63 wins to Penn State's pre-sanctions number of 56 during that span.

It isn't just Pennsylvania that could see an influx of new teams coming in. The Nittany Lions had a strong recruiting base in the Mid-Atlantic. Over the last decade, Penn State has recruited the region -- and specifically Maryland and the Washington D.C. area -- very well.

Toiling in a five-year run that consisted of four losing seasons, Maryland product Derrick Williams signed with Penn State in 2005 and promptly led the Lions to an 11-1 season and an Orange Bowl victory.

Biff Poggi, the coach at Baltimore power Gilman, which sent Brian Gaia to Penn State as part of the 2012 class, said the sanctions will affect Penn State "enormously." He called it a "big disadvantage." He expects the punishment by the NCAA, which it labeled as unprecedented, to set Penn State back at least eight years.

Gaia and Poggi talked at length between the November firing of Joe Paterno and signing day about his future with Penn State and other available options. Poggi knows the recruiting process well; he has three sons that will have all played BCS football by next fall.

One of those sons went to Duke, where first-year Penn State coach Bill O'Brien spent two seasons as offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2006. Poggi knows O'Brien and Penn State assistant Ted Roof well, and he gave this message to Gaia and would deliver the same to any player considering Penn State.

"This is a tough message for a kid that's 18: If you want to be sure that you're playing for someone who is of extremely high character, I can tell you without a doubt that Bill and Ted are two of the finest people in college football, period, because I have history with them," Poggi said. "But more importantly if you stay at a program that has these types of sanctions and you're the head coach and the defensive coordinator, then you automatically told the world that you're in the game for a different reason than just winning and using kids."

Krepps, Dorian Johnson's coach, has known the new staff for only a short period of time but echoed the same sentiments.

"I like them as people and as coaches of high character and pushing for all the right things," Krepps said.

That will only go so far without the wins to back it up, though. Few expect O'Brien to reach double-digit wins over the next few years, but even a .500 record could have Penn State in position to rebound quickly after the sanctions.

And as O'Brien showed with a class ranked No. 14 in the nation before the sanctions were levied, he knows how to recruit.

"If Bill and those guys can right the ship for three years where they're winning five, six, seven games, that's enormous," Poggi said, "because that means as soon as those sanctions come off they'll be in the living rooms of some of the best kids."

Jared Shanker

Florida State/ACC reporter