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Recruiting Update: 7/30 (Bonus: Penn State Column)

by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)

For the first time in a long time, Northwestern went a full week without adding any new faces to its 2013 class. The group remains at 15, which is tied for fourth in the Big Ten with Illinois behind Michigan (23), Ohio State (16) and Iowa (16). NU’s 2.60 average star rating (based on Scout. Com’s rating system) ranks ninth, ahead of just Purdue (2.50), Minnesota (2.50) and Indiana (2.33).

With preseason camp set to begin within the next week, recruiting activity is bound to hit a bit of a lull. NU has assembled the bulk of its class, though it could use a few more defensive players to round out the group. Far as I can tell, the all-around talent level is pretty similar to the 2012 class, which boasted an average star rating of 2.76 for its 21 members. There’s still time to finish strong in 2013, and the commitment train should fire up again in the fall once more players have an opportunity to make official visits and attend games.

The 2013 class, as it stands today

Matthew Alviti–four-star QB, Park Ridge (IL)

Sam Coverdale–three-star OT, Chagrin Falls (OH)

Brad North–three-star OG, Allen (TX)

Kyle Quiero–three-star WR/S, Oradell (NJ)

Blake King–three-star OG, Minooka (IL)

Eric Joraskie–three-star DT, Mount Carmel (PA)

Tyler Lancaster–two-star OG, Plainfield (IL)

Hunter Niswander–K/P, Peninsula (OH)

Xavier Menifield–two-star RB, Chatsworth (CA)

Macan Wilson–two-star WR, Houston (TX)

Warren Long—three-star RB, Union City (CA)

Matt Harris—two-star CB/WR, La Grange (IL)

Jayme Taylor—two-star TE, The Woodlands (TX)

Anthony Walker—three-star OLB, Miami (FL)

Brett Walsh—two-star OLB, Monrovia (CA)

(Player profiles available here)

Kevin and I spoke with coach Fitzgerald at Big Ten media days this week, and he rattled off a few noteworthy nuggets on recruiting, particularly how the process has changed in recent years. Here are some of the more interesting things he had to say:

Asked about securing more commitments earlier in the recruiting evaluation period:

Fitzgerald: “I can’t tell you that I’m a real big fan of it. I think it’s a slippery slope. The youth of the young men we’re trying to recruit right now, they don’t even have a drivers license yet, so there are a lot of choices once you get that freedom. In theory we can’t offer a scholarship in writing until a kid’s senior year, but that doesn’t matter. I think the whole process has really accelerated.”

Asked if landing earlier commitments has led to more decommitments:

Fitzgerald: “Not at our place, we’re pretty fortunate. Our staff does a tremendous job of identifying the young men that fit our program. We get them up on campus and we get them around the most important aspect of our program, which is our players. I’m not looking for a guy who is a soft commitment or something like that, I don’t know, I’ve seen a lot of terms out there. I’m not a soft kind of guy, so either you’re all in or you’re all out and if you can’t commit to being all in, then I recommend to recruits and their parents that they keep going through the process. I kind of give an analogy where you’re getting married, and if I gave a young man and his family an engagement ring and told them their scholarship reserves unless they change their academic or social character, and I told them I was going to offer somebody else their scholarship, I feel the wedding date would be off. The same thing in return is if you tell me you want to go date some other girl, some other schools, I can promise you our wedding is off and I’m not going to continue to recruit them; we’re just not going to do that. I think we’ve got a pretty clear plan, I think we know exactly what we’re looking for. Our staff has been together now for a number of years and we know exactly what fits and what doesn’t fit for our players.”

Asked about how his staff has adapted to the accelerated timetable of the recruiting process

Fitzgerald: “Our staff just is doing a tremendous job… I’ll give you Randy Bates for an example. He’s been recruiting down in Houston, when he leaves Chicago, he’s been down in Houston for a number of years. He not only knows about the upcoming seniors, he knows about the upcoming juniors and he might know about a kid who is some freak and had a ridiculous freshman year that A&M, Texas, LSU and Oklahoma are going to probably offer. So you kind of have those built in relationships, and obviously with us being in Chicago we’re going to start our recruiting here. All nine of our coaches have an area in Chicago. We know every coach, every program and so it’s all about relationship building, and once you’ve got those relationships then you can start to get young men on your campus, you can start to build those relationships, and philosophically we’re going to be a day late, a month late or six months late than be the first person in to offer a guy if we don’t have all the information we need. But that’s my challenge to our staff is we just need to continue to gain information and get everything we can out of it.”

Asked about whether he has a specific baseline age requirement for extending offers

Fitzgerald: “You’ve got to play on the varsity; I need to be able to see you play varsity on tape. Otherwise it’s just smoke and mirrors in recruiting innuendo. We’ve had a couple young men that have come to our grade school camp that have been men amongst boys and then all of the sudden (their voice changes) and their whole body changes. Ideally if I’m going to offer a sophomore or rising junior, obviously I want to see them on video playing on varsity. We evaluate them in spring practice with our own eyes, or just have them come to our camp in the summer. And if that means we’re out then I wish you well, but if you want to get the best degree in college football, then I think it’s worth you being a little bit patient here for a couple months. They’re not signing a scholarship for like two years, so give me a break. I mean, I got offered a scholarship my senior year, in December, sitting in Coach Barnett’s office. It’s my opinion that some schools get some lists from (recruiting) websites and they just offer them all. And we don’t do that. No disrespect, I believe in our evaluation, because we know our program.”

Asked if he knows any schools that offer players based on evaluations from general recruiting sites like Scout. Com or Rivals

Fitzgerald: “Not in this league. Obviously we’ve got a recruiting office and Chris Powers, who’s our director of player personnel can give kind of a daily update on “Well how about this one?” and things of that nature. When coaches leave and go to a different school and kind of take their philosophy with them, that’s when you really know how they go about their business. And hey, no disrespect to them, if that’s how they believe they’re going to have success and that’s their plan. It’s just not a good fit for us.”

ESPN Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg asked Fitzgerald about snatching heralded 2012 outside linebacker prospect Ifeadi Odenigbo from other powerhouse programs

Fitzgerald: “Urban can’t take ‘em all,” He said, invoking Ohio State coach Urban Meyer’s recruiting prowess since he arrived at the school one year ago. “But they offer 50, we get one, hooray for the Cats”

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Sadly, there wasn’t a peep to be heard on the NU basketball recruiting circuit this week…..

This weekly update normally focus on NU-centric recruiting topics, but I just wanted to give my thoughts in long form on the Penn State sanctions and their rippling effects on recruiting:

Since his arrival in State College, Bill O’Brien has faced tremendous challenges, the likes of which perhaps no first year coach has ever endured. He took over Penn State—a tradition-laden program that up until recently prided itself on academic integrity, on-field success and one of the more quaint and peaceful locales in the national college football landscape—shortly after the release of a Grand Jury presentment detailing former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse of boys over a 14-year period. Former coach Joe Paterno was fired soon after in a nasty divorce that spawned a massive debate over his knowledge and inaction in response to the alleged atrocities, with many PSU students and alums claiming his innocence and in turn condemning the Board of Trustees’ decision to relieve him of his coaching duties. At the time of his hiring (Jan 7, 2012), O’ Brien was in the midst of leading the high-flying New England Patriots offense to another Super Bowl appearance. Most college football fans had never heard of O’Brien, and the initial response was negative, rooted in a belief that the Patriots offensive coordinator was ill-prepared to lead PSU out of this scandal-ridden era. There was also widespread concern that O’Brien was not well-suited to handle the rigors of coaching a major college football program—the recruiting, developing and guiding student-athletes on and off the field, handling the often immature and volatile personalities of kids rather than professional athletes—like Penn State. Even under these desolate conditions, with punitive measures on the horizon, the fan base clamored for a high-profile college coach, not some NFL coordinator.

The road to recovery for Penn State will be long and enduring, and Bill O'Brien understands that (Photo Courtesy Spencer Green/AP Photo).

To make matters worse, O’Brien was taking over for a legend in Paterno, the man who at the time held the record for most wins in FBS history. When Paterno passed away less than three weeks after O’Brien took the job, the outcry grew louder against university officials and administrators blamed for expediting Paterno’s decline and eventual death, which made O’Brien’s monumental task of turning the page, leading the program in a new direction and convincing players, fans and administration to back his campaign all the more difficult. He took these challenge head on, and with the help of his new staff, quietly assembled one of the Big Ten’s best 2013 recruiting classes. The group includes five-star tight end Adam Breneman, four-star quarterback Christian Hackenburg and several other top talents. In his brief tenure, O’Brien has overcome immense hurdles and pitched an effective recruiting game to some of the top high school players in the nation. These players joined O’Brien’s ranks knowing full well that their future with the program lay in jeopardy. Their unmitigated devotion to Penn State, O’Brien and the football program was such that the potential negatives of embarking on a four-year, drama-filled rollercoaster ride were outweighed by the prospect of playing at an illustrious program in one of the nation’s best game day atmospheres for an emerging coach with designs on returning the Nittany Lions to national championship contention.

Their commitment to Penn State became a hot button issue last week when the NCAA, in response to the comprehensive Free Report detailing Paterno and other high-ranking officials’ concealment of Sandusky’s sexual acts, acted swiftly to punish the program with severe and potentially devastating sanctions. The punitive measures—the vacation of all wins since 1998, a four-year postseason ban, 40 scholarship reductions between now and 2017 and a $60 million fine designated for an endowment created to fight and prevent child abuse—announced by NCAA president Mark Emmert at a press conference held at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis last week shifted the focus from administrative and institutional failures across the board at Penn State to football-related concerns. No longer was the Sandusky child abuse scandal solely a matter of heinous crimes and the inconceivable measures taken by high-ranking officials to enable them, but a watch-and-see scenario involving the football program’s long-term sustainability in the face of crippling sanctions. Of all the disciplinary charges taken by the NCAA, perhaps none is more damaging than the scholarship reductions. The scholarship cap will effectively cripple Penn State’s depth and their ability to compete with top Big Ten competition. Over the next four years, Penn State can only offer 15 scholarships and will be forced to play with just 65 scholarship players. To provide some context for the debilitating scholarship limit and the severity of its implications, other programs can offer 25 scholarships and play with 85 scholarship players. Current Penn State players also have free reign to transfer to a school of their choosing (including Big Ten programs) immediately with immediate eligibility granted upon arrival at their new destination. The NCAA facilitated the Penn State poaching market even more by allowing recipient schools at the 85-scholarship limit to exceed that cap and count any incoming player on next year’s scholarship allotment. Not only did the NCAA hamper Penn State’s ability to recruit players, it greased the skids for a mass exodus of all the talent accumulated there over the past few seasons.

As if Nittany Lions players and commits needed another reason to jump ship, the four-year postseason ban guarantees that players older than the current crop of incoming freshmen will not participate in a Big Ten Championship or bowl game. Members of Penn State’s 2012 recruiting class (this year’s true freshmen) will be eligible for postseason play provided they take a redshirt year in 2012. When the bowl ban is lifted, the Nittany Lions will not be the same eight-or-nine-wins-per-year outfit we’re used to, so their bowl-less streak could last much longer than the NCAA-stipulated four years.

This is heavy stuff, and while I have every confidence that O’Brien is the right man to lead Penn State out of this turmoil, the NCAA’s punishments are severe enough that the Nittany Lions may never regain the allure, reputation and national reverence they had pre-Sandusky. Early signs point not to the doomsday scenario of Penn State plunging into a decade-long state of MAC-level college football ignominy, but a steadfast commitment to the program and its values from talented recruits. Yesterday, Breneman and Hackenburg reaffirmed their allegiance to Penn State, and so far only two 2013 pledges—four-star defensive tackle Greg Webb (Michigan) and four-star cornerback Ross Douglas (Michigan)—have flipped their commitments. Many of the older current players, such as defensive tackle Jordan Hill, quarterback Matt McGloin and linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, have also decided to play out their remaining eligibility with the Nittany Lions. And really, it makes sense that they would. After all, Penn State is one of the nation’s premier academic institutions. Completing their degree in State College and maintaining the relationships they’ve built with friends, professors and the local community is more important for these players than chasing one or two years of the oft-clichéd “bowl game experience” with a different school. Despite the NCAA’s favorable sanction-specific transfer rule modifications, many of these players feel at home in State College, a connection so strong that no recruiting pitch from even the top FBS programs with BCS bowl game trajectories can lure them away. It’s likely the NCAA penalties will scare off a few more recruits before all is said and done, and as other schools continue to recruit Penn State players—especially those buried on the Nittany Lions depth chart—you’ll see more and more guys their talents elsewhere. Star running back Silas Redd is reportedly leaning towards joining USC and third-string quarterback Rob Bolden may be headed to LSU.

Still, if Penn State can maintain respectable win-loss records in the next two seasons, O’Brien can sell top recruits on the potential of leading a reinvigorated Nittany Lions program out of its bowl-ban doldrums and into a bright and limitless future. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, surely, but given O’Brien’s steady and strong-willed persona and the early signs pointing to staunch and unwavering resolve among current commits, Penn State may yet survive the sanctions and emerge from its four-year postseason purgatory with talented and committed players bent on fast-tracking the Nittany Lions back to Big Ten and postseason success.