O'Brien has adjusted to sanctions
Coach knows walk-ons will quickly have to learn to run for Nittany Lions
D.J. Crook hunched over the laptop in his bare-walled dorm room and emailed college coaches across the country: Akron, Maine, New Hampshire, Elon, Temple.
"Hello, Coach," some of his emails would start. "My name is D.J. Crook, and I'm interested in being a midyear walk-on."
Hope evaded Crook as often as email responses. The Cape Cod native, the kid who took jobs at oyster farms and worked on fishing boats, emailed upward of 50 coaches. His father suggested Penn State, and Crook initially refused. If he couldn't get FCS schools to respond to him, why on earth would Penn State?
But, then again, what did he have to lose besides another lunch break -- and another trip, down three floors, to the cafeteria and back? He reached out to Penn State quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher, and the Nittany Lions assistant responded four hours later.
Some schools, like Dartmouth, came through Worcester to inquire about the fleet-footed signal-caller. But Penn State was one of just three schools to respond to his emails.
Bill O'Brien didn't stroll up to the podium on Jan. 7, 2012, for his introductory news conference with the understanding recruiting would be this hard.
In a suit and striped tie -- a deviation from his standard blue-and-white sweat suit -- the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator espoused competing at a championship level.
"I will also carry that message to our top recruits," he said, glancing at his notes every few moments, "and ensure that they know the standard for Penn State football remains very high and always will."
Six months later, when the sanctions hit, O'Brien's recruiting philosophy had to change. Those standards would not waver, he vowed, but the game plan could not be the same. In the game of success, this was the fourth quarter and the defense had just thrown a look O'Brien hadn't anticipated.
For four years, starting with the 2013 recruiting class, Penn State could sign no more than 15 prospects. For another four years, starting with the 2014 season, no more than 65 players could be on scholarship.
Even before the sanctions came, I knew the run-on program was going to be vital to our success.” -- Penn State coach Bill O'Brien
The dimple-chinned coach didn't have to spend restless nights thinking about the next step. Or how he would compensate for lost scholarships. It was obvious: Focus on the walk-on program, or the "run-on program" as he called it.
"It was right away I knew," O'Brien told ESPN last week. "Even before the sanctions came, I knew the run-on program was going to be vital to our success. So, when the sanctions came out, then obviously it became even more vital that we do a really good job with that."
The coaches would have to think and recruit outside of the box. They would be required to follow every lead, chase any whispers of talent and drive to as many high schools as possible.
And, as Crook would find out, they didn't mind responding to emails that 95 percent of the college football world would choose to ignore.
Penn State's quarterbacks coach wrote back to Crook and asked to see his film. The prep quarterback, known for his calm demeanor on the gridiron, tried not to build his expectations.
Only Delaware and Albany had responded to his emails. So this was great, but there was still a long way to go. He walked around the academy, past the redbrick buildings and the tree-lined lawns, and forced his mind to skip over the prospect of running out of Beaver Stadium's south tunnel.
He was invited to the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Combine as a high school junior but came down with mono after his family had already booked the hotel and flights. He fractured his thumb as a senior, right as several colleges seemed intent on offering.
He wasn't sure if this would just be another in a long line of disappointments, even after Fisher responded again two days later and told him he liked what he saw. Fisher invited him to the Wisconsin game about a week later, on Nov. 23. Another PSU assistant, John Strollo, contacted Worcester's coach in the meantime.
"He can make all the throws," Worcester coach Tony Johnson said. "That's what Penn State saw."
With red eyes and drooping eyelids, Crook awoke at 3 a.m. Friday to prepare for that visit. Along with his father and sister Crook piled into their gray Toyota for an eight-hour drive to Happy Valley, beating interstate traffic while most people slept, their bellies still full of turkey from Thanksgiving the day before. Crook slept much of the way.
"We went there before," said Crook's father, Doug. "So, we're like let's take this drive one more time.
"We'll see what happens."
O'Brien didn't have to pause Friday when asked about his walk-on program and players like Crook. While inside his car, between visits to Philadelphia high schools, ESPN's coach of the year spoke quickly and passionately about the roots of his desire to build up the run-on program.
So, O'Brien thought, why couldn't he find those same types of players and convince them to become Penn State walk-ons?
"I think a lot of emphasis is placed on how many stars guys have, but, at the end of the day, guys who aren't as highly touted still contribute," he said. "Really, even with the amount of opinion, there's no difference between a run-on and a scholarship player."
Matt McGloin, a former walk-on, broke Penn State's single-season passing record last year. Tight end Matt Lehman and tailback Derek Day, also former walk-ons, earned considerable time in 2012.
O'Brien hoped to unearth even more diamonds from the coal regions, cities and steel towns of the Keystone State. His staff traveled to nearly every high school in Pennsylvania -- O'Brien said he had visited about 30 in the past two weeks -- and stopped in towns small enough to fit in some Penn State classrooms.
Last year offensive line coach Mac McWhorter found himself in Houtzdale, Pa., a place flanked by cornfields and a 30-minute drive from the nearest McDonald's. The school there, Moshannon Valley, last produced an FBS scholarship player about three decades ago.
"We have 34 kids out for our football team this year," Moshannon Valley athletic director Tom Perry said at the time. "It's a real small school. We never got a smell from Penn State before."
Added O'Brien: "We really don't leave any stone unturned. If we get an email with a video and a transcript attached, let's look at it."
Crook, the player who sent one of those very emails, didn't smile often during his unofficial visit.
The 6-2 quarterback, a serious young man, had been here before. He had toured more than a dozen campuses and chatted with even more coaches. Still, there was something different about Penn State, about the vibe he felt from this coaching staff, about their emphasis on walk-ons.
Crook purchased a Penn State cap, the first time he bought something like that on a visit. He left the cap in the plastic bag and refused to place it atop his head. But even that strayed from Crook's routine.
"Really, the funny part about it is that was still the first time I saw him buy a hat," his father said. "He just didn't want to get his hopes up."
Crook shook hands with Fisher at the game and spoke with him a few minutes. Both his father and his coach said he just needed to pass the staff's eyeball test -- to make sure his height and weight were as advertised.
Several days later, Crook found out he passed. Penn State offered him a spot as a preferred walk-on, and he immediately accepted. He paced around Worcester for another two weeks until he was accepted into University Park and his January enrollment was official.
He finally tried on that Penn State hat.
"Oh, he was excited," Doug Crook said. "He was trying to hold it in for those two weeks, and nobody had any idea.
"And, yeah, it all started with that email."
O'Brien's renewed emphasis on the walk-on program has led to a few smiles from the same coach whose scowl looks like a cross between Bill Cowher and The Rock.
Long-snapper Sean Corcoran (Kankakee, Ill./Bishop McNamara) chose to walk on to Penn State over several other FBS invitations. Slotback Von Walker (Mill Hall, Pa./Central Mountain), who runs in the 4.5s, also committed. So did kicker Chris Gulla (Toms River, N.J./Toms River North), along with several others.
But the most recent commitment might have been the most surprising. Another quarterback, Jack Seymour (Indianapolis/Park Tudor), rejected FBS scholarship offers from the likes of Ball State and Western Michigan to pay out-of-state tuition and play under O'Brien.
"When Penn State came along, it was perfect for me," Seymour said. "At other schools, I probably would've played earlier. But with Penn State's academics, the football, the coaches -- everything -- I wanted to go there."
O'Brien and this staff don't turn down a lead. When Seymour's coach called the staff, they fielded his questions and eventually found a prospect. When Crook emailed, they decided to hear what he had to say. And with in-state recruits? Well, O'Brien chooses to take it even one step further there.
"I'm not sure if we've been to every high school that plays football in Pennsylvania," O'Brien said. "But we're pretty close. It's just making sure the high school coaches in Pennsylvania know how much respect we have for them and how we need them. We need them to succeed."
The fiery coach hosted a "Run-on Day" recently that invited 32 potential walk-ons from the tri-state area to converge on the football building. Bill Kavanaugh, the director of football operations, caught one recruit off guard when he recognized him -- from the back of his head.
The staff committed those players' names to memory, and recruits who attended said they were pleasantly surprised during the four-hour program. When O'Brien addressed the high school seniors for 20 minutes and swore they were just as important as the scholarship players, recruits believed him.
O'Brien showed that by visiting 30 schools himself in two weeks, by knowing their names and promising he'd start the best player -- even if it was a walk-on over a five-star recruit.
And that's exactly what walk-ons like Crook are hoping for. After all, players like Crook might just be a key to Penn State's future.
"My wife, she didn't cry when we dropped him off because she wants him to be there. We want him to be there," Doug Crook said. "And that's where he wants to be.
"That's where he should be."