One day after celebrating his first team and receiving four commitments to his second, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien flew to Iowa to meet a quarterback. And now he waits for the most important news of the offseason.
Jake Waters, who led Iowa Western Community College to the junior college national championship, is scheduled to announce his decision Thursday, and it's one that will affect Penn State significantly. If he chooses Penn State, Waters will enroll in January and immediately give the Lions a starting contender who threw for 3,501 yards and 39 touchdowns last season.
If Waters chooses Kansas State, where he made an official visit last weekend, Penn State will scramble to find another quarterback who can enroll in January and join freshman Steven Bench on the roster.
That Penn State is contending for one of the nation's most sought-after junior college quarterbacks might surprise those who expected NCAA sanctions to wither the team's recruiting ability. O'Brien, however, spent the entire season campaigning for Penn State as a destination, while winning eight games with an invigorated offense, and it's paying off now.
The Lions' class currently ranks third in the Big Ten, according to the recruiting site 247Sports. Last weekend, Penn State held its annual football banquet while entertaining a group of players on official visits. O'Brien received commitments from four players before heading to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to visit Waters on Monday.
Penn State began recruiting Waters early this season, understanding its need for an additional quarterback. Waters, who recently received interest from Alabama and Texas, could compete early for the starting position. With Waters and Bench on the roster, O'Brien also could better entertain the option of redshirting quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who will enroll next summer.
"Waters obviously is Penn State's top priority now," said Sean Fitz, senior writer for the website Lions247.com, which covers Penn State recruiting. "He's the top of the barrel, and Penn State needs to have some competition at quarterback next spring. Waters is also a huge target for O'Brien personally, since he's a quarterback."
The NCAA's first recruiting sanction begins next year, when Penn State can offer only 15 scholarships, 10 below the normal limit. The Lions have received commitments from 17 players, four of whom are scheduled to enroll in January. Since scholarships for early enrollees count toward the previous recruiting class, Penn State would have two remaining to offer.
"Do we have to cross Ts and dot Is more with a lesser number [of scholarships]? Of course," Charles London, running backs coach and recruiting coordinator, said this season. "With 25 kids, six or seven might not pan out. We can't afford the luxury of having one-quarter of them not work out. We have to continue to do our homework, but the things we talked about when we got here in January and February won't change."
Perhaps the most significant commitment of last weekend came from Zayd Issah, a linebacker from Central Dauphin High who was the PIAA Class 4A co-player of the year in 2011. Issah committed to Penn State earlier this year but reopened the process after the NCAA imposed the bowl ban and recruiting sanctions.
Following his official visit last weekend, Issah reaffirmed his commitment, which won't become binding until he signs his National Letter of Intent in February. Issah also was considering Oregon, among other schools.
"That shows that Penn State is still an attractive package for guys who maybe would have written it off otherwise," Fitz said. "Going 8-4 is a big part of that. People thought that, with the sanctions, Penn State would struggle for a while -- that nobody would talk about Penn State unless they were talking about Jerry Sandusky. But now kids see the exposure guys like [Gerald] Hodges, [Mike] Mauti and [Jordan] Hill got, and that's a big thing."
O'Brien pressed that issue during the season, noting all the positives about Penn State beyond the sanctions. He invited NFL scouts to practice and sold recruits on his staff's professional experience. The coach also said that Penn State's continuing national-television exposure has helped.
"The [scholarship] numbers are not equal to the other teams out there; we understand that," O'Brien said earlier this year. "As a staff, we have to do a great job of understanding that. But at the end of the day, you know, I've been very, very impressed with the fact that people really, really enjoy being recruited by us. I'm talking about prospects, coming to the games here, watching us play."
"So is it going to be hard? Yeah, recruiting's hard. But at the end of the day, I think there's a lot of good stuff."
NOTEWORTHY: For the first time since 2004, no Penn State players were named to the Associated Press All-America Team. The biggest surprise was the absence of Mike Mauti, the Big Ten's linebacker of the year who was named to the AT&T ESPN All-America first team.
WHO'S GOING TO THE SUPER BOWL?
Penn State alumni have participated in 41 Super Bowls since the game began in 1967. Fifteen former Lions, four on injured reserve, are still in playoff contention.
Buffalo Bills: Linebacker Bryan Scott.
Chicago Bears: Kicker Robbie Gould (injured reserve).
Cincinnati Bengals: Defensive tackle Devon Still.
Cleveland Browns: Wide receiver Jordan Norwood (injured reserve).
Dallas Cowboys: Linebackers Dan Connor, Sean Lee (injured reserve).
Green Bay Packers: Tight end Andrew Quarless (injured reserve).
Indianapolis Colts: Center A.Q. Shipley.
Miami Dolphins: Defensive linemen Cameron Wake, Jared Odrick.
New York Jets: Offensive lineman Dennis Landolt (practice squad).
San Francisco 49ers: Linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
Seattle Seahawks: Fullback Michael Robinson.
St. Louis Rams: Linebacker Josh Hull.
Washington Redskins: Running back Evan Royster.