Super Bowl 48  

 

O'Brien's juggling act to be tested on National Signing Day

Tim Heitman/US Presswire
Super Bowl XLVI will be Bill O'Brien's last game with the Patriots before he takes over as Penn State coach.

INDIANAPOLIS -- As most of Bill O'Brien's peers in the business of big-time college football spend Wednesday huddled by fax machines, the new Penn State coach will be hundreds of miles from campus, directing a practice to prepare for the biggest game of his professional life.

O'Brien, of course, is still the offensive coordinator of the AFC champion New England Patriots.

The two-jobs-at-once circumstance has made the past month a challenge for the 42-year-old coach. But it will only intensify this week, with the high holiday of the NFL calendar preceded by one of the most significant mileposts -- National Signing Day -- of the college football year.

So if there's a checklist for O'Brien, here it is: a) Find a way to contain the league's most dangerous pass rush and coach around an injury to one of your best players (Rob Gronkowski); and b) put the first recruiting class of the post-Joe Paterno Era in Happy Valley to bed. O'Brien told the AP earlier in the month, "There's no way I could stand in front of the team and tell them, 'You have to be loyal, you have to be committed,' and then say, 'OK, see you later New England, I'm going to Penn State.' "

But that doesn't mean that this balancing act hasn't had its drawbacks.

"It's not a good thing for Penn State," said Mike Farrell, Rivals' national recruiting analyst. "I don't know the inner workings. I don't know if he said, 'Yeah, I'll take the job, but I need this.' And Penn State was desperate. It's not like people were lining up for the job. It's a tough job. But if you're Penn State, selfishly, you had to be hoping New England would get knocked out in the first round. I've said this before -- Penn State fans should've been rooting against the Patriots, to get their coach on campus."

Healing still is happening at Penn State, after a scandal-ridden autumn spurred by the Jerry Sandusky allegations led to the ouster of Paterno and an overhaul of a program that hadn't changed much in the previous half-century. And so recruiting in 2012 always was going to difficult for the Nittany Lions.

So it is that five high-profile recruits once committed to Penn State have defected in recent weeks, three since the hiring of O'Brien. OL Joey O'Connor and DT Tommy Schutt switched to rival Ohio State first, while QB Skyler Morhinweg (Florida), LB Camren Williams (Ohio State), and CB Armani Reeves (considering Ohio State and Michigan) de-committed from PSU following the announcement of O'Brien as the new boss in State College.

In Rivals' recruiting rankings, Penn State's class has slumped to 46th. In Scout.com's rankings, it's fallen to 36th. It's hard to pin too much of that on O'Brien. But the sacrifice he made in sticking with New England, while admirable, is clearly a costly one for Penn State.

"It doesn't help," said Scott Kennedy, director of scouting for Scout.com. "Ninety-nine percent of new coaches have trouble -- Nick Saban struggled his first six weeks. ... It's just how it is. And they've got bigger problems there. I don't know that they'd have much success anyway. They've gotten eight or nine new commits, and not one is a [Top-300] guy. There's nothing normal about Penn State right now."

So how is O'Brien handling it?

O'Brien was introduced as Penn State head coach on Jan. 7.
O'Brien was introduced as Penn State head coach on Jan. 7. (Rob Christy/US Presswire)

The two holdovers from the old staff, defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, have been important from an on-campus standpoint. (Johnson has been considered one of Penn State's best recruiters for years now.) And while O'Brien hasn't been able to make the in-home visits that head coaches often do at this time of year to close on recruits, he has carved out time in his days regularly, and did spend three days last week in State College.

O'Brien told the AP -- the Patriots twice declined to make him available for an interview over the weekend -- that he's been getting to his office in Foxboro at 4:30 a.m. every day to get a couple of hours of PSU business done before his NFL work day begins, and would go back to that business after dinner. He also spent last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on campus, both working and paying his respects at Paterno's viewing.

And just before that trip, O'Brien got a visitor in Foxboro who can relate with him -- Kansas coach Charlie Weis, who was in town for the AFC Championship Game. My understanding is the two coaches spoke at length about Weis' early 2005 experience, when he was guiding the New England offense through a playoff run and just starting at Notre Dame. As is the case this year, National Signing Day that year fell on the Wednesday of Super Bowl week, with New England in the big game.

The Patriots won their third Super Bowl as Weis waded through those tricky waters, and Weis was able to rebound from any hits with top-10 recruiting classes in his second and third years in South Bend. As was the case then, the New England guys are saying O'Brien has remained on point.

On Sunday night, Wes Welker said, "I haven't been able to tell that he's going to be a coach somewhere else. ... The only difference is us giving him a hard time about being the head coach somewhere else."

Tom Brady added, "He's been very focused, and he's really a professional."

And having Josh McDaniels, Weis' successor and O'Brien's predecessor (and successor, next year), back on staff can't hurt either, if O'Brien does need to tend to Penn State work. McDaniels came back to New England after the St. Louis Rams let him out of his contract after the season. Welker says McDaniels is "just kind of laying back and observing. He's in all the meetings and everything else, but for the most part, he's sitting back and letting Billy do his thing."

But this circumstance is not exactly the same as it was seven years ago with Weis.

"I remember Charlie getting into kids' homes that year, and I'm not sure that's been possible in this situation," Farrell said. "The Notre Dame situation ... they weren't coming off a scandal and Charlie was a much bigger name. Penn State is coming off a huge scandal, and no one knew who he was. A couple kids left before he was hired, others left after he was hired, and they'll do their best to string together the best class they can. But it's not gonna be a great class."

Is it impossible? No. If O'Brien can re-unify a fractured Penn State community, and hit a home run with his 2013 recruiting class, the problems exacerbated by his absence can be healed. As Kennedy says, "We're in an ADD culture. Once they start playing, it's all back in the field."

And while Wednesday will be a day of celebration for Penn State's most prominent rivals, the Nittany Lions coach will be at a practice hundreds of miles away, a stark reminder of just how far O'Brien & Co. have to go after the sacrifice he's made to stick with the Patriots.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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