STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — New Penn State coach Bill O'Brien gave credit to the recruits who stuck with their verbal commitments to the Nittany Lions.
It would have been easy for them to join the roughly half-dozen prospects that left for other schools in light of the upheaval surrounding the football program since November.
Instead, just more than half of Penn State's 19-member recruiting class is comprised of holdovers who initially committed to O'Brien's predecessor, the late Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno — a foundation that O'Brien said allowed the new regime to target fresh prospects who were the "right fit" for Happy Valley.
"That was a real testament to their mental toughness and their ability to stick it out," O'Brien said in a conference call Wednesday with reporters. "I give them all the credit in the world. I can't wait to start coaching and working with them."
As of Wednesday night, recruiting services had Penn State's 2012 class ranked anywhere from 39th to 50th in the country and middle of the pack in the Big Ten.
Most of the class won't get to campus until June. Even O'Brien isn't at Penn State full time yet either, having to split loyalties while he finishes up his other job as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots.
O'Brien was hired Jan. 6. He plans to settle full-time in State College starting Tuesday, whether or not the Patriots beat the New York Giants in the Super Bowl on Sunday.
Until then, he hasn't been able to devote his full attention to Penn State — which is why O'Brien heaped praise on his assistants for taking the lead on piecing together the recruiting class. In particular, O'Brien singled out defensive line coach Larry Johnson, a top-notch recruiter and returnee from Paterno's staff.
"It was a very seamless transition," O'Brien said.
But they had to recruit under conditions unlike any other program in the country.
The arrest of retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on Nov. 5 on dozens of child sex abuse charges set in motion a scandal that led to university trustees ousting Paterno four days later. The NCAA and Big Ten are also looking into how the school handled the allegations.
Awaiting trial, Sandusky is out on bail after denying the allegations. Paterno was a witness before a state grand jury investigating Sandusky, and authorities said he was not a target of the probe.
More than a week after his dismissal, Paterno's family announced the coach was fighting lung cancer. He died Jan. 22.
Since then, O'Brien and his staff have stressed they will build on the "traditions of academics and athletics" stressed by Paterno in starting a new era at Penn State.
"Penn State is Penn State. It stands for excellence on and off the field, and our deal is whatever unfortunate situation or incidents that happened — we can't do anything about that, but to build on the foundation ... that Coach Paterno and his staff built," defensive coordinator Ted Roof said.
"And also about moving forward. Just focused a lot on moving forward and going from this point forward, and not really backing up."
Sean Fitz, who follows recruiting for the website Lions247, said six recruits took back their verbal commitments, including four top prospects who jumped to Big Ten nemesis Ohio State and star coach Urban Meyer. The defections dented a class once ranked in the Top 10 or 15 last fall.
But Anthony Stanko, an offensive lineman from Howland, Ohio, is a recruit who stayed. He initially committed to Penn State last March.
Stanko said O'Brien made a big impression on him over his message about family and work ethic. The current players don't have any direct connection to Sandusky or related off-field issues, Stanko said.
"I never really swayed away from Penn State. I've always stuck with it because I knew it really didn't affect Penn State, at least the kids that are there now," he said in a phone interview. "When I went (on a visit), no one talked about it much. When I visited, I was able to rest easy knowing it wasn't a big impact on the players right now."
It would be naÏve to suggest the Sandusky case didn't impact the recruiting class, said Mark Brennan, editor of FightOnState.com, which covers Penn State recruiting.
"But given everything that's happened, they couldn't have done much better," Brennan said. "If you would have told me that in early November, I wouldn't have thought that was going to happen."
Brennan, Fitz and other analysts have said receiver Eugene Lewis, of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is one of the top recruits, and someone who could potentially contribute right away if O'Brien follows through on his plans to revamp the Penn State offense in the mold of the Patriots' potent attack.
Penn State also filled a position of need by signing running back Akeel Lynch, who is from Toronto but played high school in western New York. The Nittany Lions currently have just two scholarship tailbacks in Silas Redd and Curtis Dukes.
O'Brien lost out on quarterback Skyler Mornhinweig, the son of Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. He took back his verbal commitment, in favor of Florida.
But O'Brien and his staff, who have recruiting connections in the South from O'Brien's previous coaching stop at Georgia Tech and Duke, did sign a quarterback in Steven Bench from Bainbridge, Ga. The son of a high school coach, Bench ran mainly an option system until switching schools his senior year and doing well in a pro-style offense.
Penn State's profile of Bench lists him as having a 3.86 grade-point average while being a "smart player with quick decision-making" — just the type of qualities that O'Brien is looking for in a quarterback.Comment on this story
Bench said he and his family spoke to other coaches they knew in the South to get a sense of whether the NCAA could potentially sanction Penn State over the Sandusky scandal. "From what I've gotten, it's not looking that way," Bench said in a phone interview.
Bench said he made a tough decision to decommit from Rice before accepting Penn State's offer last week. He cited the ability to get a good education as well as play Big Ten football.
"The fact that my future coach is going to coach the best player in the Super Bowl, (quarterback) Tom Brady, next week, is amazing to me," Bench said.