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February 6, 2013

Column: Choosing adversity

While entering the Lasch Building for Bill O'Brien's National Signing Day press conference on Feb. 6, a curious current Penn State football player asked why so many media members were at the facility.

Locked into a daily grind of bitterly cold morning workouts, afternoon film study and constant strength training - with the start of spring practice still weeks away - the sudden influx of media attention was unexpected.

"It's Signing Day," a reporter responded, prompting a knowing smirk from the Nittany Lion.

"Oh, yeah… Four and five-stars don't exist when we get out on the practice field," he replied before splitting off toward the team's training room.

Inside the Penn State football program, the mentality is not a unique one. In fact, at the tail end of the press conference, a reporter asked O'Brien if he follows recruiting rankings at all.

Before the question was even finished, O'Brien answered that he, in fact, does not.

Granted, with more than a few professional prognosticators and talent-evaluating analysts in the room, O'Brien covered his tracks by acknowledging how much he respects the profession and the people that call it a job - including some of his personal friends.

But, by the conclusion of his impassioned response, the message was clear:

No one has any idea what kind of career recruits will have, and basing recruiting targets by stars and rankings would be a faulty way of doing business.

"At the end of the day, that has nothing to do with how I look at a student athlete or prospective student athlete," O'Brien said. "I look at a prospective student athlete with our staff and I say, 'Look, this is what we need?

"This is a different place. Penn State is a very unique, special place to play college football and so, I don't care about stars and rankings… I just know that I feel good about the players that we got here in this class."

For every positive response about the Nittany Lions' only Rivals.com five-star, quarterback Christian Hackenberg, O'Brien had an equally enthusiastic take on lesser-known and lower-ranked prospects like defensive end Curtis Cothran, linebacker Zayd Issah and offensive lineman Andrew Nelson, all of whom hail from Pennsylvania. Other unnamed, under-valued prospects even prompted O'Brien to talk about the New England Patriots team he helped guide to the Super Bowl on the backs of players that likely never earned much praise on the recruiting trail as high school athletes.

"My point is, when we go out and work our process, our system of recruiting, we try to find the right guys that fit our program and that's what we think we did," O'Brien said. "So, certainly, there are probably some guys on that list right there that weren't as highly recruited that we think are going to be good players."

Even without buying into the hype that accompanies National Signing Day, though, Penn State's collection of five early-enrollees, 12 letter-signers and roughly dozen more run-on athletes actually have already proven something.

Unlike a college football landscape littered with glorified high school recruits who have yet to accomplish anything at the next level, Penn State's new athletes can at least reference their steadfast commitment to a program facing incredible uncertainty. Whether honoring a verbal commitment counts as character or honor is debatable, but the willingness and enthusiasm of this class to face adversity speaks volumes about themselves, Penn State, its coaching staff and, maybe most important, its head coach.

"I think that overall, this is a great day for Penn State," O'Brien said. "People may look at me and say, 'Why do you say that? We're in the middle of the sanctions' and all these things. Well, this is a great day for Penn State because I think it proves a lot of things about Penn State.

"We signed some really good kids that committed to us early and stayed committed to us. They stayed committed to us when they could have gone elsewhere, so, that's really a great day for Penn State. We found with our run-on program that there are many guys out there that have grown up dreaming about playing at Penn State that have fantastic opportunities to go to other schools. But, they've chosen to come to Penn State because of Penn State."

Rather than choosing a program with a clean slate - options they all had - these young men welcomed the additional challenges the Nittany Lions currently face.

"They have a chance to sit in this team meeting room. They have a chance to lift in that weight room, which is the best weight room in the country," O'Brien said. "They have a chance to be coached by an excellent coaching staff. They have a chance to play football in front of 100,000 fans. Most importantly, they have a chance to receive an incredible degree.

"And so, that says a lot about the tradition, the history of Penn State, the foundation that Coach Paterno laid here and built here for 50 years, and we're trying to keep that going. What it said to me today was, this is a very good day for Penn State because of what it says about the university."

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