Currently, there are two Penn State alums -- cornerback Stephon Morris and center Matt Stankiewitch -- in Foxboro trying to make the final cut for the Patriots. And while that number shrivels in comparison to the eight Rutgers products scattered across New England's 90-man roster, we might be looking at the intermediary of the future.
It all traces back to Bill O'Brien, the incumbent head coach of the Nittany Lions. Not so long ago, O'Brien was wearing hats in the Patriots organization. He spent time as a wide receivers coach, a quarterbacks coach and an offensive coordinator for New England from 2007 to 2011.
O'Brien replaced Josh McDaniels as the team's play-caller following the 2008 campaign, only to be replaced by Josh McDaniels three years later when McDaniels ventured back to his old stomping grounds after stints in Denver and St. Louis.
That's not to say O'Brien was forced out the door, however. He was a wanted man.
O'Brien interviewed with the Penn State staff in January of 2012, during New England's eventual Super Bowl XLVI run. He got the job, and Belichick was happy for him. In a statement, he expressed his admiration for O'Brien (via WEEI.com):
"Over the course of his long coaching career, Bill O'Brien has met every personal and professional challenge head on with great passion and competitiveness. I expect Bill to draw on his deep background in college football and the NFL to continue attracting and developing top players. For five years, Bill's outstanding work with our quarterbacks and entire offense has led to record-setting performances. His presence and command before our team has grown into that of a inspirational leader. This is a great match between a storied program and a old-school football coach. Bill will be up to the task and I couldn't be happier for him, Colleen and the O'Brien family."
Moving away from the tutelage of Belichick, O'Brien still managed to exceed all expectations in his first season with the Nittany Lions. He not only helped the football team notch an 8-4 record, but he also did his part to help redesign the school's identity. Even with the NCAA imposed $60 million fine, the loss of football scholarships, the loss of transferring players and the four-year bowl ban, O'Brien made the best of a very sensitive situation from year one.
The way O'Brien went about his business during his initial run at Penn State, as well as the types of players that stuck around long enough to be coached by him, are the two obvious factors in why the connection has run full circle back to the Patriots.
Penn State's Morris -- a 5'8", 186-pound DB -- agrees.
"Coach O'Brien pretty much led me here," said Morris during rookie mini camp on May 4 (via Patriots.com). "Told me this would be a great situation for me. I pretty much wanted to be a Patriot for a long time now, so it's pretty much a dream come true."
And according to the 22-year-old, there are similarities between his former coach and his current one.
"You could just pretty much see the way coach O'Brien things is the same way coach Belichick runs them," Morris said. "You can see that the New England Patriots rubbed off on him."
Morris and fellow Happy Valley transplant Stankiewitch -- a 6'4", 290-pound Rimington Trophy finalist -- face a long and arduous road to making New England's final 53-man roster. But with their coach and system familiarity, neither greenhorn can be ruled out.
Earlier this month, O'Brien, himself, essentially explained why that's the case (per Karen Guregian of The Boston Herald):"I know there's many stages of the process about drafting a player, or signing an undrafted player. Part of the process is, you're looking for guys who have played against really good competition, played in good schemes, and played well," O'Brien said.
Competition. Good Schemes. Played well. All three of those carefully chosen descriptions carry vagueness but importance.
Sounds like Belichick, doesn't it?
And by the looks of it, both Belichick and O'Brien are staying close in more ways than just thought. According to Morris's Twitter account, O'Brien paid a visit to his old team and his old players during OTAs at Gillette Stadium on May 23.
In other words, look out, Rutgers. Penn State is zeroing in.
You can follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverBThomas
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