When Christian Hackenberg talks about Penn State, he uses a word that should help mitigate any fear among the Nittany Lion fan base that it might lose the biggest piece of the 2013 recruiting class — “We.”
Hackenberg, the No. 1 pocket passer in the Class of 2013 according to ESPN.com, committed to Penn State last February and reaffirmed that commitment in August in the wake of the program’s NCAA sanctions, but left the door open if anything else were to happen to the program.
The only thing that’s happened since then? Bill O’Brien has turned around the program after an 0-2 start and transformed the Lions (5-2, 3-0 Big Ten) into possibly the best team in the Big Ten. That question can be answered Saturday night, when Penn State hosts Ohio State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) at 5:30 p.m.
Neither team is eligible for postseason play, though both can still win the Big Ten Leaders Division title, and the importance of the game is compounded by who else will be on the Beaver Stadium sidelines.
O’Brien said during his weekly radio show that expects between 80-100 potential recruits to be in attendance. That includes players already committed, and players who are “on the line” as Hackenberg put it.
A win for Penn State would be the sixth in a row for the Lions, and set a new record for a winning streak by a first-year head coach at Penn State. More importantly, win or lose, it’s an opportunity for O’Brien to showcase the new Penn State.
“I think it’s something that we’re gonna be able to use to our advantage,” Hackenberg said. “People will really get to see what Penn State football is all about. We’ll have those guys that have already given their pledge, along with the guys who are on the line, so we’ll get in their ear a little bit.”
Penn State has 11 players currently committed in the Class of 2013, including Hackenberg and Cedar Cliff tight end Adam Breneman. NCAA restrictions have limited Penn State to 15 scholarships for the next four years, beginning with the 2013 class. With only four scholarship spots left for Hackenberg and Breneman’s class, the focus Saturday will be on putting out a good message for members of the 2014 class.
As it stands now, the Lions have only one player committed for 2014 — running back Mark Allen from Maryland’s DeMatha Catholic High School. In addition to sweet-talking members of the 2014 class, Hackenberg and Breneman must also sell uncommitted members of the 2013 class on the value of a walk-on spot.
Penn State must play with 65 scholarship players, 20 fewer than the allotted norm for FBS programs, beginning in 2014 and going through the 2017 season.
The program will have to rely on walk-ons to contribute during those seasons, but Breneman doesn’t see that as a hard sell, particularly for anyone who plays his position.
“You can go to any other school in the country, but you’re not gonna be utilized the way you’re gonna be used at Penn State,” Breneman said. “You can be a third-string tight end at Penn State and still catch more balls than the No. 1 guy at Alabama or Auburn.”
Breneman added that it will be important for potential recruits to have a front row seat to O’Brien’s new offensive scheme and the defensive style the Lions are playing under new coordinator Ted Roof.
If seeing the new Penn State first-hand isn’t enough, then simply interacting with the coaching staff should be.
“The coaching staff is doing a great job first of all,” Breneman said, “especially with the under the radar guys. I trust the evaluation of the coaches more than I’ll ever trust the recruiting analyst.”
Some of those under the radar guys could be right in Breneman’s backyard, including running backs Adam Geiger from Trinity and Roman Clay from Lancaster Catholic.
For Breneman, who is sitting out his senior season due to a knee injury he suffered in a summer 7-on-7 scrimmage, part of being a Penn State commit is selling others on the future of the program under O’Brien. Though he’d rather be playing, the injury has afforded him more time to reach out to other players and make frequent visits to Penn State.
He’s been to every Lions home game with the exception of the Temple game, and made the trip to Charlottesville, Va., to see Penn State take on Virginia and bond with Hackenberg, who plays for Fork Union Military Academy, about 50 minutes outside of Charlottesville.
“I like being an ambassador for the program,” Breneman said. “I think the program is always in need of leaders and they have a great one in Coach O’Brien.”
Atmosphere will be key during Saturday’s game. Penn State has yet to sell out a game this season, and hasn’t eclipsed the 100,000 mark in attendance. Tickets were posted for as much as $575 online Sunday afternoon, but the recruits in attendance will have the best seat in the house.
With postseason bans and scholarship restrictions in place, it’s on O’Brien and players like Hackenberg and Breneman to make sure the experience is a good one, but also that the message sticks.
“(O’Brien) is getting a lot of people to buy in,” Hackenberg said. “We’re still gonna win a lot of football games. That’s sort of how I preach it. Bowl games are cool, but for me it’s not a selling point of whether or not I want to go to a school.”