Breaking Down PSU Official Visits

Several recruits give the lowdown on what happened on their big trips to Happy Valley earlier this month. What stood out most to them? Read on for details.

Bursting out into the University Park night, the young football players hollered as if they were ready to hit someone. Future teammates and friends, they were jumping around and yelling like Beaver Stadium was filled with a boisterous crowd waiting for kickoff.

It wasn't, though. Instead, it was an empty concrete behemoth on a typically chilly December Saturday night in Happy Valley. But it didn't matter to the high school seniors standing on the field. Suddenly, they were the next generation of PSU football players, standing on hallowed ground, flying through the silver gates to the still green grass.

For a moment, they were already Nittany Lions.

Official visits are often characterized by ordinary events: meetings, bonding, one-on-ones, time with player hosts and generally exploring the Penn State student-athlete experience. And those things happened when PSU welcomed many prospects -- some committed and some still deciding -- Dec. 7-9.

Yet it was different in the eyes of certain recruits who had hit the road hard for months leading up to their decisions -- taking countless official and unofficial visits to a host of schools nationwide.

As of this writing, four uncommitted prospects on that weekend visit ended up pledging to Penn State.

So what was an official visit weekend like under first-year PSU coach Bill O'Brien and his staff? Read on for details.


FRIDAY

Official visits can last up to 48 hours per NCAA rules, and Penn State kicked off its big weekend Friday afternoon. Recruits and their families rolled in one after the other, unsure what to expect after checking in at the Nittany Lion Inn on campus.

“I went up there expecting just a regular visit; nothing spectacular,” Northview High (Stafford, Va.) receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. His tune would change by Sunday, though.

The event started with a reception.

Coaches took turns introducing themselves, and shining some light on the background of not just their experiences, but also what their respective pasts brought to the present Nittany Lion program.

Next up was a training table dinner. While some aspects of an official visit now certainly differ from the days when Joe Paterno roamed the sideline, one similarity holds true -- the presence at every turn of academic advisors. Counselors, professors, coaches, families and players all sat around at dinner a short walk from the Lasch Building, discussing not just football, but also studies.

“While we were eating, we got to talk to a bunch of different people on the academic side of things,” H.D. Woodson [Washington, D.C.] defensive back Jordan Smith said. “Adam [Breneman] and I want to go into business, so we had the opportunity to talk to some advisors from Smeal [College of Business]. Some other guys talked to advisors from the programs they want to get into.”

After dinner, the group headed to the Lasch weight room for a special presentation from Penn State strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald. Though darkness had long since covered University Park, eyes lit up as Fitzgerald walked the group through, step by step, a typical training program for team members. Then the coaching staff gave them the rundown of a normal day during the season.

“It was pretty neat to see what all they do, and how they do it,” Lynchburg (Va.) Christian Academy offensive lineman Tanner Hartman said. “I was really impressed and can't wait to get started with the program. It looks awesome.”

Shortly thereafter, prospects and their parents headed back to the Nittany Lion Inn to rest up for a big day Saturday.


SATURDAY

Saturday began as a tour day. Breakfast featured a side of academia, as players once again had the opportunity to have questions answered about classes, study halls, scheduling and the like. Then, it was off to see the dorm rooms they may inhabit during their first years as Nittany Lions (and the classrooms in which they may sit).

After a two-hour break for lunch, it was time to shuffle over to the Bryce Jordan Center, where the PSU basketball team snuck away with a 78-70 win over Army. There was special meaning even to that, though, as the 2012 football team was honored at halftime.

“It was awesome to see that after such a tough year for them, and to see them come through the adversity and be an 8-4 team,” Randolph (N.J.) High offensive lineman Brendon Mahon said.

Watching a game is one thing, and numerous recruits talked about the bonding experience the game represented. Sitting and talking is critical to every official visit. Running is not, though that was right around the corner.

“We headed over to the stadium and toured the locker room and the facilities, and then Coach Fitzgerald brought us all into the locker room,” Smith said.

After dinner in one of the lounges at Beaver Stadium, Fitzgerald, never shy with his emotion, led the prospects in an enthusiastic stretching routine similar to what they might experience in the locker room or on the field prior to kickoff.

A neat twist, sure, but in the mind of many recruits, it was just another example of what might occur if they come to Penn State. But then Fitzgerald opened the door, and summoned them to the tunnel behind the south end zone at Beaver Stadium.

There stood the silver gates, the spaces in the bars showing a lit field. It was time to run. Fitzgerald opened the gates, and with a quick word of motivation, sent them out onto the turf like a flash into the night. They were running onto the same field their hosts ran onto just weeks before in a season-ending 24-21 victory over Wisconsin.

“It was really cool,” Valley Forge Prep (Wayne, Pa.) defensive back Anthony Smith gushed. “I'm not a rah-rah type of guy, but a lot of guys were hyped. It was the highlight. That was something I can't fully describe. It was a great feeling, and I can't wait to run out of that tunnel with my fellow Lions.”

Even Hamilton, admittedly reserved in nature, was drawn in by the excitement.

“I'm not a big rah-rah guy, I'll admit that,” Hamilton said. “But I went along with it, and man, some of those guys were pumped. It was one of those special things; it was pretty neat.”

The prospects broke it down on the field, now as one group, not as the individuals who arrived at University Park a day earlier.


SUNDAY

The prospects gathered one final time as a group to eat breakfast, and said their goodbyes before parting ways. But most are going to see each other again.

Before leaving campus, Bayside Academy (Daphne, Ala.) linebacker Jonathan Walton, Central Dauphin (Harrisburg, Pa.) linebacker Zayd Issah and Anthony Smith all committed. Hamilton gave his pledge later in the day.

“Seeing my mom and dad enjoy the visit just as much as me, if not more, really hit me,” Hamilton said. “They felt it was a great decision by me, and that always helps make it stronger.”

But the previous commitments -- many the longtime glue for this Class of 2013 -- left their mark, too.

“All of us commits really jumped on those guys and told them our opinions,” Jordan Smith said. “We told them what we thought about the school, and gave them the reason why we committed. We just sat in a circle and talked, and everyone got a chance to voice their opinion.”

Hartman added how much impact he felt that had.

“I didn't really expect us to come together like that, it was really more than I expected. We all bonded so quickly,” he said. “I loved the visit.”

Breneman, who has likely made more trips to Penn State then any of the other commits since announcing in March, came away with a special feeling, too.

“It was a great weekend,” the tight end said. “We were all talking, and that was a weekend that we will never forget. In four years when we graduate, we will look back on that weekend and all remember it. It was just a great time for us to all bond with the coaches, our families -- most importantly -- each other.”

Council Rock North (Newton, Pa) defensive end Curtis Cothran also left with a memorable experience.

“We all bonded together so easily, and it shows there is only success that will come in the future,” Cothran said. “The facilities and how great the coaches, players and other commits are really left an impression on me.”

“This weekend was Penn State,” added Jordan Smith, who will enroll at PSU in January. “This weekend was one team.”


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