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Penn State football is entering its second season of sanctions that were perceived to be worse than the death penalty, but a month prior to kickoff the program is showing no signs that it is worse for the wear.
The Nittany Lions were picked to finish third in the Big Ten Leaders Division -- with a smaller margin between them and second-place Wisconsin than the one with predicted fourth-place finisher Indiana -- and their recruiting has not slowed. The current class is nearly full with 13 commitments, and it is a pleasant surprise at No. 24 in the Rivals.com team rankings.
At Big Ten media days in Chicago, head coach Bill O'Brien said he is more settled this season than he was when he took over, but his focus remains on moving the program forward.
"You know, a lot of the things that we talked about last year when I was here, it's water under the bridge," he said. "We're in a situation at Penn State right now that is unprecedented, sure. But at the same time I've said this over and over again, our staff, myself, we're thankful for our players.
"Our players are tough. They're resilient. They're good kids. They're hardworking. They go to class, and we're looking forward to working with those guys. The rules are what they are. And that's what we play under. And that's what we're going to do. So we're excited about the season, and again we just really want to concentrate on the 2013 season."
Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell said he believes O'Brien is a special coach and that as the former New England Patriots assistant looks to the future it is important to stay in the present when discussing the success of the Nittany Lions.
"He is doing probably the best job in recruiting right now," Farrell said. "That staff is overcoming more than anyone else is -- losing seasons, coaching changes, things like that slow you -- but with the cards they were dealt this is incredible.
"It helped that he was able to keep that group of seniors together last year and win. I think that was big, but then bringing in the class they had last year was good with the core of Christian Hackenberg, Brendan Mahon, Garrett Sickels and Adam Breneman."
Hackenberg was a five-star quarterback from Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, and he was the first player to commit in the class of 2013. The other three followed within three weeks, and all stayed true to their word.
The 6-foot-4, 212-pound pro-style quarterback is in a competition to be the starter this season. He will battle Tyler Ferguson for the spot, and O'Brien said he wants to make his choice quickly.
"I think you have to make a decision about halfway through training camp. I really do," he said. "I think in order to give that guy, whoever that guy will be, Tyler or Christian, in order to give him enough time to prepare for an excellent Syracuse team that throws a lot at you defensively, you have to give them a couple of weeks to get ready for the first game at the very least, especially a young quarterback.
"Probably halfway through, we'll have enough evaluation of our practice film and all the different things that go into being the starting quarterback at Penn State, not only on the practice field but in the meeting room, and we'll make a good decision. We'll do what's best for the football team."
Farrell said the chance to play immediately was a draw for Hackenberg.
"He would say that he picked Penn State because of the opportunity and the chance to be a leader of the team," Farrell said. "Obviously we thought he was a special talent in high school, and I think that working with O'Brien will make him successful."
O'Brien has yet to use his coaching techniques with Hackenberg, but he anticipates that will happen in the immediate future.
"Obviously we haven't had a chance to work with Christian yet -- not allowed to work with the guys in the summertime -- and he just arrived here for our summer program;" O'Brien said. "And Tyler, we worked with him in the spring and he improved every day. You know, one thing that's really exciting about working with young quarterbacks is that you get a chance to really mold that quarterback. You get a chance to really teach that quarterback. And Charlie Fisher and I are going to do that and work hard at teaching our quarterbacks how to play in our offense and managing a game and play smart, tough Penn State football. We are excited about that."
The excitement surrounding the program has carried over into recruiting for this season, and again the team has a quartet of high-profile commitments.
Currently committed are four-star receivers Chris Godwin and De'Andre Thompkins, quarterback Michael O'Connor and defensive back Troy Vincent.
Farrell said the class is strong, but with it containing zero offensive linemen and just two players on the defensive line, there is cause for concern.
"Guys like Godwin and Thompkins are very talented, so I understand getting them into the class, but having all of those skill guys is questionable," he said. "When you have roster limitations, you still need to get guys into the trenches. Maybe they are waiting because it is easier to find some hidden gems on the line than on the outside.
"They keep getting guys who can do multiple things and who will give them some flexibility, but you can get thin at other positions that way."
The current team appears to be thin at linebacker, and O'Brien said the players who can do multiple things will be asked to step up.
"Well, again, we're going to have to go into training camp and see how much some of our younger players have improved at those positions," he said. "Remember, if you look at linebacker in the spring, we didn't have Ben Kline in the spring. He was out with a shoulder operation. He'll be back for training camp. We're looking forward to seeing him.
"He stopped by the office the other day. He's had an excellent summer, looks in great shape, and he's ready to go," O'Brien said. "So we get him back. Gary Wooten, another guy that we felt was improving during the spring, can add depth there.
"Again, we've got to look at all the different players we have on defense as it relates to the linebacker position. What can a guy like Adrian Amos do? Can he play safety? Can he play corner? Can he play linebacker? Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, can he come down and play some linebacker for us?"
Where the Nittany Lions may have to start making headway is with their "run-on" program.
Being down 40 scholarships over the next five years, O'Brien introduced the enhanced walk-on program last season and had success finding players to contribute.
Farrell said that will have to continue but that it is not a place to routinely mine contributors.
"It is intriguing to me," Farrell said. "It will be very, very important to the success of the program in terms of building quality depth, but I think it has limitations.
"It is going to be hard to convince a three-star to pass up an opportunity at a full scholarship to 'run on,' but I think if the team keeps winning that some guys who may be two-stars or impact players for FCS schools would be tempted to go to Penn State because there will be opportunity to earn time on the field."
Farrell said that following an eight-win season -- which ended with a recruiting boon -- all signs point to the program maintaining its standard. He added that if O'Brien stays it could push the program beyond the success that Joe Paterno was having in recruiting.
"I don't know how long O'Brien will stay, but if he can keep winning and keep recruiting there is nothing to suggest that Penn State cannot get to heights that it wasn't at in the last decade," he said. "It is one year later and people are nearly forgetting the sanctions, and that says a lot about the job O'Brien has done."
O'Brien is not close to forgetting what he is dealing with, but he hopes the course he has set will stay true.
"I mean, last year I think we arrived here the day after obviously the penalties being announced, so I think we're in a better mood this year," he said. "But obviously you're a lot more comfortable with your position as a head football coach after having -- it's only been a year, but you're more comfortable with the players, with the staff, knowing each other, the chemistry, all those different things that go into it.
"Again, does that lead to victories? Who knows? We're going to have to go out there and play extremely hard."
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