New staff extends recruiting footprint

Defensive end Anthony Chickillo sounded confused in 2009.

The Florida native's recruiting was heating up the winter of his junior season. He would go on to become ESPN's No. 24 overall prospect — and record five sacks as a freshman with Miami — but, in 2009, he spent his days poring over a mountain of letters from every school in the nation.

Well, almost every school.

"I've gotten letters from pretty much every school but Penn State," he told ESPN at the time.

Before Bill O'Brien came on board, Penn State hadn't signed a Florida recruit since ESPN started tracking the classes in 2006. In fact, the past coaching staff barely ventured into the South.

If a line was drawn across the country, starting at the Virgina-North Carolina border, the Nittany Lions would have signed only nine players below that line — and 112 above it — since 2006.

That's not the case anymore.

O'Brien has extended offers to about 20 Class of 2013 players below that line, while defensive coordinator Ted Roof has taken a leading role in unearthing Southern gems interested in heading north.

Roof, a former Auburn assistant, has worked his Southern connections and spoken with coaches that Penn State has never heard of. He stopped near the Alabama bluffs, at little-known Bayside Academy, over the spring to watch a linebacker whom no one above the Mason-Dixon Line had viewed in person.

That linebacker, Jonathan Walton, earned a scholarship offer. And he stifled a laugh when asked if he was really interested in a place so far north as Happy Valley, a town 25 degrees cooler than Daphne in December and January.

"I'm a linebacker," he said, "and it's Linebacker U."

The new coaching staff hasn't been shy about pursuing players. Miami (Fla.) commit Keith Bryant (Delray Beach, Fla./Atlantic Community) received an offer from Penn State earlier this month and has remained in touch with defensive line coach Larry Johnson.

Houston commit John O'Korn (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./St. Thomas Aquinas) earned an invite to a Penn State game. Kasey Gaines (Loganville, Ga./Grayson) is now deciding between Harvard and PSU. And Neiko Robinson (Bratt, Fla./Northview) committed to Penn State in early June.

The sanctions might turn off some — maybe most — Southern recruits, but other speedy prospects are intrigued about playing for a historically dominant defense. For past players like Chickillo, they never even had a chance to decide whether Penn State would be the right fit.

O'Brien's looking to change that.

"The way I think of it," Gaines added, "is it's a new era for Penn State."