Brendan Mahon listened to coach after coach after coach issue their warnings.
Are you sure you want to go somewhere you can’t win a conference championship? Are you sure you want to go somewhere you can’t play in a bowl game?
Mahon is one of the nation’s top offensive guard prospects, a 315-pound snowplow from New Jersey. He’s good enough to earn scholarship offers from every major conference.
Florida. Michigan. Miami. Rutgers. West Virginia. UCLA.
During the past year, those schools — and many more — tried to persuade Mahon to reconsider his college pledge. They all failed. Wednesday morning, Mahon faxed his letter of intent to Penn State.
Penn State? The same Penn State that employed Jerry Sandusky all those years? The same Penn State that got bludgeoned by the NCAA last July?
Mahon knows what he’s missing. He also knows what he’s gaining.
“You play in front of 110,000 people,” he told me Tuesday. “That’s more than a bowl game in Texas.”
Bill O’Brien signed 17 players this winter, but four or five could have gone anywhere in the country. That’s enough to give the Nittany Lions the 24th-best class, according to ESPN, just one spot behind Nebraska. Pretty astounding considering the facts:
» Penn State isn’t eligible for postseason play until 2016, Mahon’s fourth year in the program.
» From now through 2016, Penn State can’t give out more than 15 scholarships in any year.
» For four years starting in 2014, Penn State’s total players on scholarship is limited to 65.
» Through August, Penn State players can transfer to another program and immediately be eligible.
Then there’s O’Brien, who was a flight risk BEFORE he earned national coach of the year honors. Now it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be at Penn State when his first recruiting class graduates.
“I’m not a one-and-done guy,” O’Brien told Pennlive.com after interviewing for the Cleveland Browns head coaching job in January. “I made a commitment to these players at Penn State, and that’s what I am going to do. I’m not gonna cut and run after one year. That’s for sure.’’
O’Brien has pushed all the right buttons since taking over for Joe Paterno. His first team, which finished 8-4, restored a sense of pride to Nittany Nation. But the first recruiting class post-probation carries an even greater significance.
Last summer, Penn State players like Mike Mauti were lauded for sticking around when the NCAA offered them transfer rights. Rightfully so. But the decision of Mahon — and blue-chip classmates like Christian Hackenberg — raises the standard of loyalty and leadership. If I didn’t think they were downright crazy, I might pat ’em on the back.
Mahon grew up three hours from Penn State. He knew the traditions — plain white helmets, plain blue jerseys, black shoes. He wasn’t much of a football guy, though — “I was always too big to play.”
In high school, size became an asset, not a liability. Sophomore year, he traveled to Happy Valley for the first time. You come up over a hill, and “the first thing you see is Beaver Stadium,” Mahon said. “Just the size alone is enough to make anyone’s mouth drop.”
Junior year, he took a recruiting visit for the Penn State-Iowa game. He met Paterno. Penn State surged to the top of his wish list.
Four weeks later, the Sandusky scandal broke. Paterno was fired. For two or three months, Mahon heard nothing from Penn State.
When the new coach reached out to him, Mahon visited for Junior Day. He liked the school even more. O’Brien held on to the traditions and family feel, but he modernized everything. He was gaining recruiting momentum. Then the next bombshell dropped.
On July 23, NCAA President Mark Emmert levied the most severe sanctions since the SMU death penalty.
The Saturday after “Black Monday,” as rival coaches pressed Mahon to decommit, he and seven recruiting classmates converged on State College. They met with O’Brien. They asked dozens of questions about the future. They talked about staying positive, sticking together, representing all the guys who’d played at Penn State before the sanctions.
“When you’re home, everyone’s chirping in your ear. No one can relate to you,” Mahon said. “But when you’re with everyone, they’re in the same exact position. They know what you’re going through.”
Penn State lost five commitments following Black Monday. Not Hackenberg, one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. Not Adam Breneman, an elite tight end who enrolled at Penn State last month. Not Garrett Sickels, a four-star defensive end from New Jersey. Not Mahon.
The core was intact.
“There’s no doubt (O’Brien’s) done a great job of holding this class together,” said Allen Trieu, national recruiting analyst for Scout/Fox Sports Next. “You’re looking at a guy who is extremely honest about the situation. I don’t know of any kid who’s taken a visit there who feels like they’ve been lied to.”
The problem with Penn State’s class — and this will be true of the next three Nittany Lion classes — is depth. Fifteen isn’t enough. Football is a numbers game, and the NCAA has basically guaranteed that “run-ons,” as O’Brien calls them, will be prominent on the depth chart.
As a result, Penn State can’t afford to miss on the blue chips it does sign. Mahon embraces the responsibility. He has vivid memories of his first game at Beaver Stadium, the Iowa game in 2011.
“You walked out of the tunnel and the first thing you saw was the 110,000 people,” Mahon said. “It was breathtaking.”
Forget bowl games and conference championships. Keep that stadium full, and the class of 2013 will have done its job.
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