Penn State, O'Brien have begun healing process with recruiting
Several weeks ago, Cedar Cliff (Pa.) High junior Adam Breneman received an email from a fan. Breneman was coming off a season in which he corralled 72 receptions for 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns, and such messages came with the territory: Like it or not, Breneman had become a quasi celebrity. He was the nation's top-ranked tight end (and No. 22 overall prospect, according to Rivals.com), a premier pass-catcher in an imposing 6-foot-5 frame. His every move was tracked by legions of college football diehards.
Days earlier, on March 9, Breneman held a press conference to announce his much-anticipated decision. Nearly 600 people crammed into the Cedar Cliff gymnasium to watch as he committed to Penn State over Ohio State, Maryland and Notre Dame. He received an outpouring of support in the days that followed; upon declaring, the gym actually
But this email was different. This email came from Camilo Benavides, a resident of Colombia, from more than 2,000 miles away.
"Your commitment means a lot to Penn Staters in the international community. I can guarantee you that a lot of people from various countries around the world that attended Penn State with me were very excited ... People came to me to ask about the future of Penn State football once the scandal broke out ... I responded with the following: If Adam Breneman commits, then we can expect good things to come."
Less than three months after signing its weakest class in recent memory (six prospects decommitted after the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke last November), Penn State locked up its highest-rated recruit since 2006. And while the Breneman news is the biggest, it's part of a larger trend: Through Wednesday, new coach Bill O'Brien had secured eight verbal pledges in the rising senior class, including six from four-star prospects.
"It's a great opportunity for any 2013 or '14 -- any kid coming along for the next couple years," said Christian Hackenberg, a committed quarterback out of Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy. "You can step in and restore a program, put it back where it belongs in college football."
The post-Sandusky aftermath continues to hang heavy in State College, a feeling that will only intensify once his trial begins June 5. But the sentiment is telling. After the darkest, most tragic hour in the program's storied history, the sun may finally be breaking through the clouds.
Take Hackenberg, the first player to commit in the 2013 class. After throwing for 2,164 yards and 20 touchdowns during his standout junior season, he had his choice of BCS powers; his top five consisted of Penn State, Alabama, South Carolina, Miami and Florida. Other programs weren't shy about emphasizing the Nittany Lions' downfall. After visiting Happy Valley on junior day, however, Hackenberg declared just two weeks later.
"Once I met coach O'Brien, that was the thing that really got me turned on to Penn State," Hackenberg said. "He's the type of guy that I want to be coached by and the type of guy that will definitely develop me into the best that I can be."
O'Brien sat down with Hackenberg to screen footage of Tom Brady, his quarterback during his three-year tenure with the New England Patriots. That experience -- and potential access to the seven-time Pro Bowler -- helped Hackenberg cement his choice.
"Having a coach who can get me in contact with a guy like [Brady], that's a great opportunity for a quarterback," Hackenberg said. "It's just a great attribute on coach O'Brien's résumé."
Breneman echoed that sentiment. After growing up an avid Penn State fan -- his hometown of Camp Hill, Pa., is just 92 miles from State College -- he questioned pledging to a program embroiled in a seemingly endless state of turmoil. He tried to remove fandom from his decision, a dilemma that was soon resolved after meeting O'Brien and studying the success of former weapons Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
"I don't know if I would be committed to Penn State now -- and I definitely wouldn't be committed this early -- if it wasn't for coach O'Brien," Breneman said. "One of the main things I was looking for was how I was gonna be utilized in the offense, and he is one of the best, if not the best, at using [the tight end]."
O'Brien's NFL pedigree played a major role in landing Hackenberg, Breneman and fellow top prospects Ross Douglas, Garrett Sickels and Greg Webb. Equally pivotal: O'Brien displayed a confidence in the program that was lacking in recent months. He may not be a Penn State lifer -- a common criticism upon his January hire -- but, in the wake of tragedy, he represented the school with unmistakable conviction.
When Penn State started to feel like Penn State again, it wasn't lost on recruits.
"He made a big impression on me," said Douglas, who committed on Feb. 29. "Penn State is one of the best college football programs in the country and he's making sure it's gonna stay that way."
It's no great secret the recruiting is the lifeblood of any high-major athletic program. It's the reason Alabamans rejoice after Nick Saban signs a perennially talented haul, and the reason more than 1,000 spectators attended the Signing Day ceremony of last year's No. 1 recruit, Dorial Green-Beckham. It can determine the success of a program -- and coach -- for years to come.
But in some cases, the importance of recruiting transcends star-ratings, statistics and 40-yard dash times. In very rare circumstances, it goes deeper, touching on a more intangible quality tossed around constantly in sports: character.
"I think to go to Penn State right now it takes a special kind of kid -- a kid that wants to be different," said Breneman. "I want to make a difference. I don't wanna just go to Alabama and win championships. I want to go somewhere and be a leader and be a difference-maker."
It's too soon to know if Breneman, Hackenberg and the rest of the newcomers can win, but that -- at least for now -- isn't the point. They all know what happened. They all had other options. And, thanks largely to O'Brien's influence, they all still picked Penn State.
It's just recruiting, but it feels strangely more significant. That resonates -- from State College to South America.
"We're doing something really special," said Breneman. "If people don't see it now, they're gonna see it in a few years. We're starting the healing process and I know I and a lot of other kids are excited to be a part of it."