Penn State Gains Two New Commitments, and a (Nittany) Nation Scratches Its Head

2010 Penn State vs Michigan State-1 As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, Penn State added Class of 2012 commitments from two relatively unknown defensive tackle prospects over the weekend, when Virginia’s Derek Dowrey and New Jersey’s Austin Johnson committed on the spot to Larry Johnson-extended offers. They became the ninth and tenth commitments for the Nittany Lions, but they also immediately became lightning rods among the fans. Neither prospect is ranked by any major scouting outlet, and their commitments came at an odd time to some fans.

First, let’s meet the new members of the Nittany Lion family. And it can’t be stressed enough that these kids, even if their offering and commitments came at an odd time, are now members of our close family and should be treated as such. Fans, bloggers, and commenters alike are entitled to their opinions of the staff, the strategies they employ, or the perceived lack of effort by certain members. But it is unfair to bash a 17- or 18-year old simply because he chose his college (and chose wisely might I add).

Derek Dowrey is a 6’3″, 275-pound lineman from Winchester, VA. He is listed as a defensive tackle by Lions247, but has the skillset to play on both sides of the ball. He held offers from both of the major schools in West Virginia (WVU and Marshall) along with some smaller schools. As stated, he is not ranked by any of the major outlets. It should be noted that while Dowrey might be new to fans, he has been attending PSU camps for some time, so he is definitely familiar with the staff, and apparently visa versa.

Austin Johnson is a 6’4″, 277-pound defensive tackle from Richland, NJ. It’s difficult to predict where linemen will end up in three years, but Johnson will likely stay on the defensive line. He held offers from some other BCS schools, namely Rutgers, Syracuse, and Boston College. Like Dowrey, he is not ranked by any of the outlets, as of yet at least.

We welcome the new Class of 2012 commits, but cannot help but be skeptical of their timing. Reserving judgment on their play until more can be seen (as of now, there is limited film on either player), these players seemed to be recruits on whom the staff could have waited while higher ranked players made their decisions. Now we can argue the merits or lack thereof of the star systems until we’re blue in the face, but I’m not sure anyone, fan or staff, had either of these players above defensive tackles like Tommy Schutt, Sheldon Day, or Ryan Watson.

Sure, those players just named might never set foot on campus as a member of the Lions. But at the moment we definitively find that out, my guess is that Dowrey and Johnson would still have been available for offer. These recruits seem to be the kind of player the staff would target in January, not June, to fill any holes remaining.

Adam Collyer, new writer at Black Shoe Diaries, wrote a good article outlining why these kids weren’t so-called “Plan B” recruits. While I’ve agreed with Adam in the past and find him to be both rational and knowledgeable and a great asset to BSD, I must disagree with him here.

Adam’s point, and the one that most people take when Penn State gains a commitment from a relative unknown, centers around the trust put into the staff to make the right decision, regardless of which page of the calendar is showing.

The coaches saw kids who could play, thought they fit the system, and moved them up on their board after spending several days observing them.

This might be true, but you cannot overlook the fact that these kids, by and large, are the type of kids that Adam discusses in the paragraph just above this quote.

Had these offers been given in January after Penn State had missed on several prospects, it would be logical to argue that we were filling out the class by taking fliers on virtual unknowns.  We’ve done that before and we’ll probably do it again.  So goes the recruiting business.

These two players seem to be exactly the type of players that Penn State could have waited on while attempting to fill their roster with the higher ranked players on their board.

Trust in the staff is essential; without it, you’re simply going to become an exceedingly frustrated fan. But sometimes the staff makes some decisions that makes everyone pause and react in various ways. Adam’s right, the internet almost literally broke on Saturday night when these commitments were announced. A mental state of shock and a physical state of being in Cleveland prevented immediate updates, but reading the blog updates and Twitter reactions of those both in the know and casual fans could have made your head explode.

The truth of the matter is that Penn State got two new commitments on Saturday, two spots that can’t be taken up by other players that may have been higher on the actual recruiting board. Whether that turns out to be a good choice is likely a matter of years. The data we have now, both objective and subjective, are all the fans can go by in formulating their opinions.

Some, like Adam, will place trust in the staff that the right decision has been made despite the low-caliber offer sheets and lack of stars. Others, like myself, feel that the timing is questionable, and that other players may have been better fits for those spots. Each side has a valid argument, but it’s the offseason, so we argue.

Pro-staff proponents will say that Larry Johnson has a proven track record of producing quality talent, and they’re right. But what they don’t realize is that Larry Johnson has a proven track record of producing talent that came in highly rated. From 2006 to current (the furthest back that data would allow me to go), Larry Johnson has produced five NFL draft picks, and has nine current players that are poised for big seasons. I was liberal with the current players, any of whom could end up being busts. Nine of those 14 players were four-star (per, and only one, Tim Shaw who was included simply because of his pseudo-DE role, was two-stars. So while it may be true that Johnson is a great molder of talent, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that he is creating these star players out of thin air. The defensive line prospects of late are highly ranked when they get to Penn State, an advantage for any coach.

Finally, and what may have irked some fans even more, is that Penn State, already riding some momentum into the weekend, made a rather high-profile miss on PA OL Chris Muller. It has been reported that Penn State was pressuring Muller to commit, saying that there were only two OL spots left and his “guaranteed” spot would only be held open for so long. Muller, not one to be pushed around figuratively OR literally, backed off, and eventually committed to Rutgers last weekend (which is a head-scratcher in its own right). Add in the fact that TN OL Blake “Brother of Brad” Bars committed to Michigan, and Penn State lost two of its top three OL recruits in a matter of days, while adding two lesser known defensive line commitments. Throw in the stories surrounding the number of staff members actually recruiting, and its no wonder that recruiting message boards meltdown with relative ease when stuff like this happens.

We trust the staff in June of a recruiting year while later criticizing the staff for their play-calling and decision making in November. Fans are quick to jump to the defense of an unknown commitment now but also can’t stand a six-loss season. I know those causes and effects aren’t exactly comparable, but the point is that sometimes trust in the staff can be unwarranted. And that is when doubt rears its ugly head and people start heading for the ledges.

I’ll sit back and continue to watch this class grow. It is still a great class, and if we can close on the top targets we’re after, it’ll be a phenomenal class. But one can’t help but wonder who those other two spots could have been in January…

With the last two commitments, how worried are you about the 2012 recruiting class?

  • Zenophile

    Just for the record: I am not scratching my head (& am very much a part of Nittany Nation).

  • Chris @ Slow States

    I vote Chill The Eff Out, if only because I like Dowrey’s potential and think the other kid will end up on OL unless he gets a lot of coaching. But PSU could’ve waited. And your point on LJ working with highly regarded recruits is lost on so many people who blindly trot out the “In LJ I Trust” line.

    Tim Shaw was at least an all-state RB in Michigan — his athletic ability was never really in question for people who saw more than a white running back.

  • M1EK

    If this were an isolated outlier, I’d be with the Chill The F Out crowd. When I hear the rumors Chris shared about half the staff not recruiting anymore, it ceases being an outlier and starts to be an alarming trend.

    • Jeff

      You can’t comment on that yet, though. Cause no one has had the balls to say anything in front of a paywall.

      In reality, though, Chris is probably right. Who is Bradley recruiting? And Galen Hall? And Jay? Dick Anderson, LJ, and others are busting their asses on a staff that is at, what, 60% capacity?

      • Chris @ Slow States

        That’s exactly right. Just list out the coaches and think about what they’ve done lately. JoePa Skypes, which is probably a best-case scenario given his situation, but doesn’t really qualify as hitting the pavement and recruiting like a head coach should. Depending on which side of the story you believe, Tom Bradley either doesn’t want to recruit or has been effectively prevented from recruiting by Joe Paterno because of Bradley’s flirtation with the Pitt job the second time it became available. Either way, Bradley’s not really doing anything. The offensive coordinator doesn’t leave State College.

        Think about that. Head coach, defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator. Practically no recruiting effort from the three most influential people on the staff.

        Jay’s territory is Ohio, a place where PSU used to get a lot of great players. In a year where Ohio State is in complete disarray, we’re doing next to nothing out there (again). I’m not sure anyone knows what Dick Anderson is doing.

        This leaves McQueary, Bill Kenney, Kermit Buggs, LJ, and Ron Vanderlinden — all position coaches — to do the heavy lifting. It’s insane.

      • Jeff

        I don’t buy the “Bradley is being prevented from recruiting by Joe out of spite” argument. I’m not sure what his involvement is otherwise, but I’m sure he’s allowed to recruit. Whether he’s effective or not (Jesse James is his lone recruit, I believe) is a debate for another time.

        Everything else you said, I agree. There is no reason to have the head coach and offensive coordinator sitting on their asses. Joe Skyping has been a great development this year, but if you stop to think about it, we’re getting excited over a head coach making a Skype call to a recruit. When that recruit happens to be the most prized defensive recruit on the board and he lives LESS THAN TWO HOURS AWAY, Skype seems ridiculous.

      • M1EK

        I wouldn’t pay for any site that would have me as a member!

        Bradley only having one recruit is a huge red flag. Despite what people say about LJ, wasn’t Bradley responsible for a ton of recruiting the last N years?

      • Chris @ Slow States

        They’d better stay on Jarron Jones closely, because he’s still going to take his visits and Syracuse is working him hard. Plus, they’re only 90 minutes away from Rochester (PSU is more like four hours).

      • Jeff

        Bradley is cornered into western PA, which has been on the decline in recent years. That’s not to say he can’t pull solid talent out of there, but compared to LJ’s fertile DC/MD/VA recruiting grounds, it’s tough.

        And Chris, I hear they’re treating JJ like he is an uncommitted recruit at this point. I think he stays with PSU after reading some recent articles.

    • Mike

      I wonder how long it will be until someone does say or write something out in the open about what’s going on with who’s actively recruiting for PSU this year.

  • Peter

    I say Chill, but there’s reason for concern here.

  • Jeff

    I’m still in the Chill Out category, and for all we know, this could be nothing. But like Peter said, there is reason for concern.

    The more I look at Dowrey, the more he’s growing on me, but I still can’t get a read on Johnson.

  • NewEnglandNittanyLion

    Here’s the thing that everyone seems to be forgetting: These aren’t low-rated kids; they’re kids that haven’t been evaluated yet. Just because they weren’t aggressively pushed in front of the recruiting services during their junior year doesn’t mean they’re not good–even great–football players. It just means they go to smaller schools or haven’t been playing the recruiting game.

    If a kids’ star rating is what’s getting you all worked up, at least wait until he gets one before making a judgment. If they end up with two stars after being properly evaluated, fine–go hysterical then. But right now, the only evaluation we have for these kids is Larry Johnson’s, and in his estimation, they are talented enough to earn offers on the spot.

    I also have to take issue with the argument that Larry Johnson should have held off on offering these kids until January, regardless of how good he thought they were, because they “seem like the type of players we could have waited on.” I’m not sure why they “seem” that way, considering we know next to nothing about them. But, consider this hypothetical: Let’s say LJ decided not to offer Dowrey and Johnson right away, choosing instead to treat them like plan B guys. Let’s say this leads them to sour on PSU (like so many players did last year because the staff was slow to offer them). Now let’s say it’s December, and both kids have gotten high marks from Rivals after monster senior seasons, and the offers start pouring in for the kids. They both commit elsewhere, and the message boards melt down, because we “had them on the hook in June, and let them go.” I don’t think any of us want to see that happen.

    • Jeff

      I get what you’re saying, really I do. And to be clear, my point was never to diminish these kids’ ability or say bad things about them. No matter what, they’re now Penn Staters, and that’s what matters most.

      But as I said in the post, the staff was after some pretty high end DT’s other than these kids. Why take these two relative unknowns simply because they impressed in one camp?

      If the other players passed on PSU, I’m sure there were other DTs high on PSU. If these kids were willing to commit on the spot, I’m not sure they would’ve soured had PSU not offered.

      Despite what others may think, every school in D1 football has Plan A, Plan B, etc. kids. Hell, it’s why we target Noah Spence and no one else at the position. Up until camp, the offers that were out were by and large the Plan A kids. So the confusing part was the timing and the position…there were other higher rated players left for a position that was getting low on openings.

      If these kids get two stars or five stars, the timing remains the issue. At this point, they were relatively unknown. Sure, the staff (minus JoePa, which everyone is conveniently leaving out of their arguments) saw these kids at a camp. But a camp is no different than a combine in that it only measures certain attributes. So while certain fans decry the practice of following combine results, it seems mildly hypocritical to then put blind trust in the staff’s analysis of one afternoon of padless practice.

      • Newenglandnittanylion

        Here’s my thing: you keep referring to these kids as “unknown.” They may be unknown to us, but they’re not at all unknown to the staff. Both kids have made multiple trips to PSU, and have presumably had extensive contact with the coaches. Both apparently have plenty of game tape–just like every recruit.

        To date, we only have one complete data point for each of these kids–LJ’s evaluation of them. If the recruiting services come out with competing data points for them, there will be something to argue about, but right now, there’s not. If you want to trust the evaluation of the recruiting services over LJ’s evaluation, fine. I don’t put a ton of stock in star ratings, but I don’t blame those who do.

        As far as I can tell, there’s still room in the class for those top linemen prospects who want to commit. And if they’re as good as they’re made out to be, they shouldn’t be worried about competing for playing time; rather, they should be excited by the prospect of practicing and playing with a deep and talented unit.

        If the staff turns a cold shoulder to the top linemen recruits because of Dowrey and Johnson, who eventually receive subpar ratings from Rivals and Scout, then the fans will have valid reason to grouse about recruiting tactics. But none of that has happened yet.

      • Jeff

        You’re right, the lone data point is the evaluation of the staff until the recruiting services, if ever, get around to them. But don’t make it out to be like they’re regulars on campus. Even if they’ve camped there every year, which I think Dowrey may have for a couple years but not sure on Johnson, that’s still limited exposure.

        Larry Johnson sees these kids for one day a year at a camp with hundreds of players. To say that the staff has seen these kids is somewhat of a misnomer.

        Look, the staff is what, nine members strong? And of those nine, there are how many recruiters or persons actively involved in recruiting? Contrast that with the scouting services…Scout or Rivals, and now 247 have a huge web of talent assessors, including at these camps. Sure, they take their time with their analyses to make sure they get as much exposure as they can before making a determination, but I’ll take a trusted 247Sports assessment any day (the conspiracy theorists be damned).

        Five star players get five stars for a reason, and NR players are NR for a reason. Some of that is out of their control – a kid playing in West Texas is going to get reviewed a hell of a lot sooner than a kid in upstate NY. But Jarron Jones managed to get five stars in NY…

        As for room in the class, you’d think that the commitments of two players wouldn’t have a huge impact. But if you take a closer look at the numbers, the spots are pretty tight. Other people have said that no one knows what’s on PSU’s big board, and that’s true, but educated guess and good reporting by the recruiting services gives us a pretty damn good idea. Two early DTs that by all accounts weren’t high on the board means that the higher DTs are gone, or if the staff finds room for them as you suggest, that means that two other spots are gone. Maybe a MUCH NEEDED defensive back, or the second WR, etc.

        It’s a fine dance the staff plays, for sure, but it’s one that must be played with precision. Just like we should question the bubble screen on 3rd and 18 against an OSU defense, we should question certain offers and commitments.

      • Newenglandnittanylion

        The fundamental coaching staff vs. recruiting service debate won’t get either of us anywhere. I value a 24/7 scouting report to a point, but I tend to put more stock in the coaches’ evaluations–especially in the case of an early offer. You don’t. Neither of us is going to change our minds on that one.

        There’s a big difference between a NR kid in June and an NR kid in February–especially when the unrated kid comes from a high school that’s not a football factory. Like I’ve been saying all along, let’s at least wait for the recruiting services to do their thing before passing judgment. If both kids end up with 4-star ratings in the end, this whole debate is going to end up looking pretty silly.

        I am ready to question the staff if they do things that seem wrong to me. Right now, there’s nothing to make me believe this is a questionable move, especially considering how well they’ve done recruiting linemen this year (and pretty much every other year for as long as I can remember). But, as the situation develops more, my opinion could certainly change.

  • aluf

    I think, did some research, and read some articles and on the average the higher star rated teams do better. That said, look at our Linbackers last year. Star studded and nothing to write home about. Where is Eric Shrive? Since I would say, generally its true, individually it might not always be. You can always wait for a “better woman” but if you like what you see, know what you are getting and sure of what you want, DAM, marry the woman! (sidebar: God I wish you had a spell check option).

    • Jeff

      I’m not sure I would call our LBs last year star-studded. This year is a different story. But you’re absolutely correct in your wins vs. stars correlation.

      And for every Eric Shrive (5* yet to contribute) and DC17 (2* great player), I can list 50 4*/5* players who were awesome and 50 2* players who were glorified clipboard holders.