Penn State has a recruiting class that appears set to be among the best not only in the Big Ten but the nation and shows no signs of unraveling in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky verdict and possible reports of a university cover-up.
The scandal involving the former assistant coach led to the dismissal of legendary head coach Joe Paterno, calling an end to a career where he won 409 games and had 24 bowl wins during 61 seasons at Penn State. With the January hiring of Bill O'Brien as head coach, the program got an infusion of youth in the coaching ranks in addition to adding someone who was in no way associated with the program's scandal, the recent upheaval or the potential cover-up.
As an outsider, O'Brien along with his NFL coaching pedigree, has assembled the No. 15 recruiting class in the nation, according to Rivals.com.
"We're all very aware of what is going on right now, it isn't something we won't forget about it," tight end Adam Breneman of Camp Hill, Pa., said. Breneman is the No. 1 tight end in the nation, according to Rivals.com, and committed to Penn State in early March.
"I've talked about it numerous times with coach O'Brien, the coaching staff. It is part of the healing process, that's what we want to be a part of, the healing process here at Penn State. It isn't something we just forget about; it is something we talk about and it is obviously an issue. What happened [with the Sandusky verdict] just pushes us along in that process."
The 14 recruits in the 2013 class average 3.5 stars, an impressive number considering the relatively poor haul last year. Penn State had just the No. 7 class in the conference in the wake of the Sandusky scandal with the average recruit holding just a 2.79-star ranking, a number that ranked significantly behind area programs such as Pittsburgh and Rutgers.
Despite the glamor associated with Beaver Stadium and Paterno, the recruiting trail has been a difficult one as of late for the Nittany Lions. According to Rivals.com, Penn State has had a top-five class in the Big Ten just twice since 2007 while the national ranking has consistently been outside the top-25 classes in the nation. Not exactly the building blocks of an elite program.
All that may be changing with O'Brien's fresh approach as he tries to distance himself as much as possible from anything tainted by Sandusky.
Multiple sources have confirmed to Yahoo! Sports that O'Brien and staff did not reach out to their recruits in wake of the Sandusky verdict. Instead, they are focusing on what they're calling a "rebirth" of the program.
"We have talked about it numerous times, he has made it clear that whatever happens we can't change what Mr. Sandusky did and what happened," Breneman said.
"We have to move on. Now we're in the midst of the healing process. This isn't the beginning of the healing process, that started a long time ago."
On the recruiting trail and during unofficial visits this spring and summer, O'Brien and his staff are talking little about the past and telling recruits to instead focus on the future of the program and the possibility of winning a national championship with this new-look program. Recruits talk about O'Brien's pitch being just that: "The past is the past."
Even in light of last week's report that the athletic department had been involved in a cover-up of Sandusky's known sexual abuse, the line is sticking with recruits. Four-star offensive tackle Brandon Mahon of Randolph, N.J., committed to the program about a week after Breneman.
Mahon said O'Brien brought up the scandal early on during his unofficial visit in March. It was an effort to clear the air on the topic early on in the conversation before moving on to talk about football.
"Personally what happened is terrible, but it doesn't have to do with the football staff," Mahon said. "Coach O'Brien is making a point that this has nothing to do with the football program. It isn't an issue of the football team or the football program."
When asked if the Sandusky case impacted his thinking, Mahon was frank in his response: "I mean a little bit, but I know the new guys on the staff and that was then and this is now. It isn't a matter that will impact what we are or who we are going to be."
But the Sandusky issue might just impact the program, with possible NCAA sanctions looming as part of the athletic department's role in the cover-up. While the infractions committee has never before weighed in with sanctions for a criminal issue, the magnitude of the cover-up and the severity of the actions committed might reach the level of "institutional misconduct."
Mahon said he is "100 percent Penn State through everything." Perhaps not surprising for a player who reached out to O'Brien shortly after the Sandusky incident made headlines to let the coaching staff know his interest in the program. Even the potential loss of scholarships or bowl games doesn't seem to be enough to derail this class or take the recruits off O'Brien's message.
"It was definitely a question I had, my parents had," Breneman said "You just don't know right now, but I don't think there will be NCAA sanctions against Penn State. If and when that does happen, I can promise you that we will move past it and do what we can to put Penn State where it belongs in the rankings of college football. I'm 100 percent, and I can tell you the rest of the guys in this class are 100 percent Penn State and coach O'Brien is 100 percent Penn State. When I committed to coach O'Brien, I didn't just commit to him, I committed to the university."
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