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Penn State Football: As Top Talent Signs Letter of Intent, Run-Ons May Be the Key

by on February 06, 2013 6:00 AM

“For a period of four years commencing with the 2013-2014 academic year and expiring at the conclusion of the 2016-2017 academic year, the NCAA imposes a limit of 15 initial grant-in-aid (from a maximum of twenty-five allowed) and for a period of four years commencing with the 2014-2015 academic a limit of 65 total grant-in-aid (from a maximum of 85 allowed) for football during each of those years.” - NCAA decision on Penn State

Page five of the NCAA’s decision to sanction Penn State spelled out a variety of punishments, from a bowl ban to a $60 million fine, as the Nittany Lions were struck down by NCAA President Mark Emmert unlike any other program in the modern era.

For Bill O’Brien and his staff, it puts a premium on recruiting coachable, high upside and quality talent. Where a class of 25 may have multiple players not pan out, a class of only 15 leaves little room for error.

As the Nittany Lions move forward through an uncertain time in the program’s history, finding talent to surround top-ranked quarterback Christian Hackenberg and finding players to continue a tradition of strong defenses will become a top priority.

“My question,” ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said Monday, “I’ve said this all along and I think it’s a fair point, going forward, will there be enough talent, good football players at Penn State around [Hackenberg] that not only to be able to maximize his talent but to maximize their potential to win as a football team. Say what you want, great quarterbacks can make teams a lot better but you still need great players around him to make that happen.”

If anything, O’Brien’s staff full of NFL experience and high energy coaches has proven its worth with a fully stocked cabinet, but the real test will come over the next few years. It is no secret that some players will be turned off by the uncertainty that lies ahead. To what extent it changes the recruiting impact O’Brien can have on top rate talent is something that only time will tell. However the need to develop the current roster is a very real and present need.

That’s where O’Brien is applying his Brown-educated mind.

Run-ons.

The NCAA sanctions limit Penn State’s ability to recruit scholarship athletes, the maximum of 85 total being merely a number as most unsanctioned programs hover below that. Penn State itself spent most of last season around the low 70s, so in all likelihood the Nittany Lions will only skim anywhere from 5-10 scholarships off the top to hit 65 by next season. It’s a hit, but it’s far less than what it may seem like on the surface.

So far at least 20 high school athletes have announced their intention to play for Penn State while paying their own way. They won’t sign Letters of Intent and are not bound to the university like a scholarship athlete. But they also don’t count against the sanctions. The talent pool is widened without penalty.

What O’Brien is betting on is himself and his staff. That they can find players out there that have potential. Meticulous work on the recruiting trail has turned up at least these 20 players. Penn State isn’t opening up the chance to just anyone. O’Brien and his staff are out there grinding away.

But what talent is out there?

“There are always a few walk-ons who end up making and contributing to teams,” Allen Trieu of Scout.com said Tuesday. “Some become all-conference guys and NFL guys. Those guys fall through the cracks, because often times, they're late bloomers and it's hard to project how kids will grow and develop.

“They're skinny high school kids who grow into their bodies, get into college strength and conditioning programs and really blossom as players. In general, the guys who get the scholarships are going to make up the majority of a team's starters, but a good walk-on program creates good depth, special teams, and usually a couple of guys who break through and become starters or contributors.”

O’Brien hasn’t entered the process blind either. Looking at conference foe Nebraska offers up a model of a walk-on program that has succeeded. The Cornhuskers have sent 29 former walk-ons to the NFL and have had six turn in to All-America players.

“I'm going to reach out to a few programs.” O’Brien said last season. “It's all about in my opinion, a little bit of professional development, but also some programs that, Nebraska, for example, that have great examples of run-on programs in their history. I will reach out to some of those coaches or athletic directors and see how exactly they went about doing that. And I already have. I already have done that, so continue to do that.”

In the world of nonstop recruiting and scouting, the chances that O’Brien will find gem after gem under the rest of the nation’s collective nose is small, but if he and his staff can find a handful of serviceable players each year it could go a long way toward making it out of the sanctions on top.

Like any recruit, there is no telling how his future will pan out, but if O’Brien’s work with former walk-on Matt McGloin is any indication, a scholarship may only be a sign of free tuition rather than an indication of who is hitting the field each Saturday.

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Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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