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March 1, 2012
So far, so good.
O'Brien recorded two major recruiting victories Wednesday when Rivals250 players Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy quarterback Christian Hackenberg (No. 153) and Avon (Ohio) athlete Ross Douglas (No. 242) verbally committed to Penn State.
Penn State's 2012 class included only one Rivals250 prospect: Plymouth (Pa.) Wyoming Valley wide receiver Eugene Lewis, who was No. 141.
Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said getting two big recruits as the first two recruits was important for O'Brien.
"If they'd gotten a kid with a couple of local offers and no ranking yet as their first commitment, the criticism would have started that they're reaching, they're desperate," Farrell said. "Getting a kid [Hackenberg] who had offers from Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina, it's a statement commitment. That's what it is.''
O'Brien needed the fast start to give Penn State some recruiting momentum as the program recovers from the scandal surrounding the child sex abuse allegations against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. The scandal resulted in the firing of legendary coach Joe Paterno, who died Jan. 22 of complications from lung cancer.
Penn State's recruiting took a major hit in the wake of the Sandusky allegations and wasn't helped by the fact that O'Brien's job with the Patriots left him with divided responsibilities all the way up to National Signing Day. Penn State's 2012 class finished seventh in the Big Ten and outside the top 50 in the Rivals national team recruiting rankings.
"Obviously this is going to be his first full class, and it's extremely critical,'' Farrell said. "This class is going to turn the page. If he has a bad class, people will be reminded of the way things went last year. If it's a good class, it allows a lot of the national focus to be on the future.''
The commitments of Hackenberg and Douglas could help change that focus from the past to the future.
Ohio State has commitments from five of the nation's top 130 prospects: Trotwood (Ohio) Madison cornerback Cameron Burrows (No. 7), Voorhees (N.J.) Central cornerback Eli Woodard (No. 28), Middletown (Ohio) athlete Jalin Marshall (No. 41), Centerville (Ohio) offensive tackle Evan Lisle (No. 83) and Austintown (Ohio) Finch defensive tackle Billy Price (No. 130).
[ BlueWhiteIllustrated: Laying the groundwork for success ]
Michigan's list of 13 commitments features Warren (Mich.) De La Salle quarterback Shane Morris (No. 16), Parker (Colo.) Ponderosa offensive tackle Chris Fox (No. 46), Wexford (Pa.) North Allegheny offensive tackle Patrick Kugler (No. 54), Wheaton (Ill.) St. Francis offensive tackle Kyle Bosch (No. 60), Alliance (Ohio) Marlington safety Dymonte Thomas (No. 77) and Pickerington (Ohio) North tight end Jake Butt (No. 96).
These two commitments show that Penn State is making a major effort to keep pace.
"They rolled out the red carpet for me, and I just fell in love with it from the jump," Douglas told BlueWhiteIllustrated.com. "I just felt at home at Penn State, and that's ultimately what it comes down to."
Of course, verbal commitments aren't binding until a player actually signs a letter of intent. Penn State fans know that all too well. Rivals100 defensive tackle Tommy Schutt, Rivals250 linebacker Camren Williams and Rivals250 cornerback Armani Reeves all verbally committed to Penn State last year before signing with Ohio State.
"I'm going to be working on some of my friends and [will] try to get this to be one of the best recruiting classes in the nation," said Douglas, an all-purpose athlete who likely will play cornerback at Penn State. "We are going to be good because Coach O'Brien is a great coach and I am ready to start the new era."
O'Brien also is showing he can recruit at college football's highest level. Although he already has 14 years of college coaching experience as an assistant at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke, the Penn State job offers a whole different level of expectation.
Because he spent most of the 2012 recruiting season helping the Patriots on their Super Bowl run, he didn't get much of a chance to address the concerns about his ability to sign top-flight players. But now that he's finally getting a chance to concentrate exclusively on his new job, O'Brien is making a favorable impression.
His efforts already have paid off with two Rivals250 commitments. An even bigger prize could be on the way.
"I think others are going to follow," Farrell said. "I fully expect Adam Breneman, the tight end from Pennsylvania [and the nation's No. 22 prospect] to be committed to them sometime in March. That's helped along by the fact they got a great quarterback."