Jan. 7 will mark the five-year anniversary of Bill O’Brien’s hiring to replace Joe Paterno at Penn State, and much of his legacy had already been determined in the eyes of many the day he left Happy Valley for the Houston Texans just after New Year’s in 2014.
Most Penn Staters — other than perhaps the “Paterno people” he chided on the way out for stifling the program’s ability to move on from the Jerry Sandusky case — would tell you, then and now, that O’Brien was an inspiring leader and a brilliant X’s and O’s guy. He earned the former reputation by holding the team together in the face of NCAA sanctions — including scholarship restrictions — related to the Sandusky case, then the latter by leading depleted rosters to winning seasons and lots of points on offense in 2012 and 2013.
He is not, however, remembered for being an especially savvy recruiter. His only full class in 2013 was ranked by Rivals a modest 42nd nationally, while his partial classes in 2012 and 2014 came in at Nos. 55 and 25, respectively.
Obviously, he was steering into historically difficult headwinds in cobbling those groups together. But it’s hard to earn the title of “ace recruiter” with classes ranked midpack, especially after his successor, James Franklin, vaulted Penn State into the top 25 under the same limitations for the early part of his tenure.
A quick look up and down the lineup the Nittany Lions will deploy at the Rose Bowl, though, tells quite a different story of just how good a job O’Brien and staff did in stocking the program with talent that played a big part in winning this season’s Big Ten championship.
- The receiving corps was almost exclusively built by O’Brien. DaeSean Hamilton signed in the 2013 class, and Chris Godwin and DeAndre Thompkins both committed to the 2014 group the April before O’Brien’s departure. Saeed Blacknall is the only major contributor of group who committed after Franklin’s hiring.
- Mike Gesicki, the tight end who became a huge part of the deep passing game this season, signed in the 2013 class.
- Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson, both 2013 signees who dealt with injuries in the latter half of the 2016 schedule, made major contributions along the offensive line.
- The entire starting defensive line was recruited by O’Brien. (Although defining “starting” can be difficult considering Penn State’s frequent rotations at those positions.) End Evan Schwan was one of the first recruits to sign on under O’Brien in 2012, while Parker Cothren, Curtis Cothran and Garrett Sickels followed in 2013.
- Brandon Bell, a 2013 signee, and Jason Cabinda, a 2014 commit, almost single-handedly turned the defense into an elite unit when they returned from early injuries at midseason. It’s also worth noting that backup Brandon Smith, a product of the walk-on program O’Brien emphasized while Penn State was under sanctions, also made big contributions here.
- Safety Marcus Allen was an early commit to the 2014 class and has been one of the keys in helping Penn State keep the top on the defense this season.
- Several other O’Brien recruits maintain a presence in the two- and three-deep rosters.
That is an extraordinary legacy for O’Brien considering the circumstances he faced.
Sure, one would expect upperclassmen to play important roles on a championship team. But by my count on Penn State’s Rivals commitment list archives, O’Brien secured just 39 total commitments over three classes as Penn State coach. That is one big class at some programs.
For nearly half of those prospects to be making major contributions now — especially considering the high roster turnover in modern college football and the fact that few of these guys were true blue-chippers — is a breathtaking achievement, and one O’Brien should get a lot more credit from Penn State fans for.
Sure, James Franklin and his staff have done a nice job developing that talent and complementing it with some true impact players. Blacknall, All-American running back Saquon Barkley and Big Ten championship MVP quarterback Trace McSorley come to mind.
It is hard to argue Penn State would have made it this far, though, without O’Brien hitting on a disproportionately high number of the few scholarships he was allowed to distribute — a number that would be even higher if we count departed O’Brien recruits, such as Jordan Lucas, Christian Hackenberg and Austin Johnson, who are now plying their trade in the NFL.
This is as big a part of his Penn State legacy as anything else, and it’s worth taking a moment to recognize that as the Nits’ big day in Pasadena draws near.