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Column: O'Brien building reputation as a recruiter with first class

  • By Bill Landis, Sentinel Reporter
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When he sat at the table with Adam Breneman, his father Brian and Cedar Cliff coach Jim Cantafio at the Allen Street Grille in State College, new Penn State coach Bill O’Brien made it clear that although he wasn’t a Penn Stater, his respect for the university and its football program ran deep.

Apparently, that’s all Adam Breneman — the nation’s top tight end for the class of 2013 — needed to hear to cement his decision to play football for Penn State. Breneman made that decision official Friday night at Cedar Cliff High School when he put a Penn State hat on his head to cheers of blue-and-white-clad fans in the school’s gymnasium.

O’Brien didn’t have to be flashy, just honest with the Brenemans and Cantafio about the direction in which he wanted to take the Penn State program and his vision for the team’s offense.

That isn’t to say he didn’t have a few tricks up his sleeve. Before the visit ended, O’Brien made sure to flip on some highlight tape of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski and his New England Patriots teammate Aaron Hernandez. O’Brien would have been remiss not to remind Breneman of his connection to the best tight end tandem in the National Football League.

He took it a step further.

“He told Adam, ‘This is you,’” Cantafio said. “He said, ‘I will coach you and I will get you to the NFL.’”

At 16 years old, being mentioned in the same breath as two of the game’s best tight ends had to have been an overwhelming experience for Breneman. From Cantafio’s recollection of Breneman’s other visits to Ohio State, Notre Dame and Maryland, the recruiting trail was full of those experiences.

He wore Urban Meyer’s championship rings and was given a No. 87 Buckeyes jersey while visiting Columbus. At Notre Dame he walked through a human tunnel from the famed mural of “Touchdown Jesus” to the entrance of Notre Dame Stadium before the Fighting Irish clashed with rival USC. He was in the locker room with the Maryland team after the Terps’ season-opening win over Miami.

He had lunch with O’Brien.

That was enough for Breneman, who grew up a Penn State fan, but admitted that Penn State wasn’t alone at the top of his list until after he spoke with O’Brien. Four-star Virginia prep quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who committed to Penn State on Feb. 29, said the same thing about the Lions’ new coach.

In the early recruiting sprint for the class of 2013, O’Brien has made a splash by being up front and “personable”, as Brian Breneman put it.

In addition to Adam Breneman and Hackenberg, O’Brien has also received commitments from Avon, Ohio athlete Ross Douglas and Little Silver, N.J. defensive end Garret Sickels — both four-star prospects according to Rivals.com.

“I love him,” Hackenberg said of O’Brien. “He’s a great guy, he’s straight-forward.”

When O’Brien was officially hired as the Penn State coach on Jan. 7, his ability to recruit and recruit well was chief among the concerns of Penn State’s fanbase. It’s hard to argue with that ability after the week he’s had. Breneman, Hackenberg, Douglas and Sickels all signed within 10 days of each other.

It’s early, but O’Brien deserves an A-plus for the job he’s done thus far only two months into the job. His staff deserves credit, too, for getting out on the road while O’Brien was still fulfilling his obligations to the Patriots during the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl.

While Penn State’s 2012 recruiting class, splintered by the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, left something to be desired in terms of big-name talent, the 2013 class, the one on which O’Brien’s skills as a recruiter will ultimately be judged, is off to a solid start.

The four current commits are a solid base that will only improve O’Brien’s reputation as a recruiter in the increasingly competitive Big Ten.

While missing out on Breneman, Meyer is still off to a hot start with five early commits, including five-star defensive back Cameron Burrows from Trotwood, Ohio. At Michigan, second-year coach Brady Hoke is making a mark with his 2013 class that already includes 15 commits, including Pennsylvania product and North Allegheny offensive lineman Patrick Kugler.

O’Brien has a way to go before matching the numbers that Hoke has put up, or gaining the same reputation that Meyer has earned as a recruiter, but he’s making strides.

“I feel that (O’Brien) is gonna be an active presence in recruiting,” Hackenberg said. “I know a couple head coaches who don’t really participate in recruiting. He’s definitely being an active recruiter and he’s pretty darn good at it as you can see.”

Landing Breneman was the first big coup for O’Brien, but missing out on Kugler, who had an offer on the table from the Lions, highlights the most important issue for the coach moving forward — keeping Pennsylvania talent in Pennsylvania.

The state’s 2013 class is top-heavy, with Breneman and Kugler leading the way, but the rest are still weighing their options. That includes Central Valley wide receiver Robert Foster, West Catholic running back David Williams and Wyomissing linebacker Alex Anzalone.

All three have offers from Penn State, as well as at least three other Big Ten schools. O’Brien’s NFL ties will work best with luring tight ends like Breneman, or quarterbacks like Hackenberg. For the other positions, he’ll have to work a little harder.

Being Tom Brady’s quarterbacks coach is a nice card to play, but ultimately not all that helpful when trying to convince a linebacker or a running back to chose him over coaches with a better record of success at the college level.

For O’Brien to continue his own success in recruiting, he needs to be the whole package. He came across as such to Brian Breneman during lunch.

“Coach O’Brien really connected with us during lunch and during the session in the afternoon,” Brian Breneman said. “It wasn’t just about football, it was about life and the Penn State experience and what that means for someone over their lifetime.

“Before we left, Coach O’Brien said, ‘I know you love your son, but you can entrust your son’s future to me. I’m gonna take care of him, I’m gonna treat him the right way and I’m gonna respect him. No matter what happens he’s gonna be part of the Penn State family.’”

With that, the Brenemans were hooked.

But O’Brien’s work is far from being completed.

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