Scholarship cuts raise new concern
When a player is knocked out by injury at a major college football program, a scholarship player lower on the depth chart typically fills the void.
That may prove to be more challenging next year for sanction-burdened Penn State.
Significant scholarship cuts mandated by the NCAA kick in for Penn State's next recruiting class, a penalty that university trustee Alvin Clemens worries could whittle down depth so much it could affect the team's overall health.
Clemens feared the penalty could have ''a huge effect, not only on the lack of scholarships, but from the injuries,'' he told fellow trustees and school President Rodney Erickson at a board meeting last week. ''Making the team so depleted it could cause more damage to the remaining athletes, to their health.
''The NCAA should be made aware of our concerns, that down the road, that this could have a bad effect on us.''
Erickson said the concern had already been raised with the NCAA before college athletics' governing body slammed the school with unprecedented sanctions for its handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The punishment also includes a four-year ban on postseason play and a $60 million fine.
Clemens has also raised the issue with acting athletic director Dave Joyner.
''If you get depleted in your squad size, and some people get hurt, then maybe you get very thin in your substitute players,'' Joyner said in an interview after appearing at a campus student forum Wednesday. ''I think that is a concern as we go forward, and we'll have to watch that very carefully. I know that (coach Bill O'Brien) is very aware of that.''
Asked if the issue could be raised again with the NCAA as suggested by Clemens, Joyner said that it was ''voiced to them early on, and my hope is they're watching it and understand it and we'll see how it plays out.''
Scholarships are the lifeblood of a football team, helping to rejuvenate a roster with new talent as older players transfer or run out of eligibility.
As part of the sanctions, Penn State can only sign 15 recruits a year from next year through 2016. Most teams can sign 25. Starting with the 2014 season, the Nittany Lions can only have 65 players on scholarship until after the 2017 season. The usual scholarship limit for major college teams is 85.
While a few Class of 2013 players have taken back verbal commitments to Penn State, some high school seniors have also re-affirmed their verbal commitments to become Nittany Lions starting next season. The most notable names are Pennsylvania tight end Adam Breneman and Virginia quarterback Christian Hackenberg, prospects rated highly at their positions who may get a shot at early playing time in O'Brien's revamped passing attack.
Prospects can officially sign on with their college destinations starting in February.
Otherwise, non-scholarship players, or ''walk-ons'' make up the rest of the roster, which typically has about 105 names in-season. At Penn State, O'Brien calls those players ''run-ons'' for their hustle on the practice field.
Under the tenure of the late former coach Joe Paterno, Penn State had a history of giving walk-ons a chance and watching them turn into key players. On the current team, tailback Derek Day and starting quarterback Matt McGloin are former walk-ons - though McGloin disdains the label.
Former Seahawks receiver Deon Butler owns Penn State records for career catches (179) and single-game receiving yardage (216 vs. Northwestern in 2006), set during a four-year career that ended in 2008.
Joyner feels that O'Brien's experience evaluating talent in the NFL while offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots will serve him well.
''Now I do think that Bill will be very good at finding players that walk on that will fly under the radar,'' Joyner said. ''He understands talent and he understands evaluation. He did a lot of that with the draft in the NFL.''
Penn State, like other schools, also have ''preferred'' or ''invited'' walk-ons. Generally, such players are typically considered good enough to be recruited and compete for a roster spot, but don't get a scholarship right away. For instance, McGloin arrived at Penn State as a preferred walk-on before going on scholarship the next season.
The NCAA has no limits on the number of walk-ons, though such players must still meet the same eligibility standards as scholarship players. Also, the sanctions against Penn State do not limit walk-ons.
Walk-ons, then, could play an even bigger role at Penn State in the coming years, especially the preferred walk-ons. Currently, Penn State has about 10 preferred walk-ons, and Joyner said increasing that number is under consideration.
Schools set the policy on the number of preferred walk-ons for each team. Joyner said the university must weigh academic guidelines and consult the Faculty Senate in deciding whether to increase preferred walk-on slots for football.
O'Brien this week maintained he's concentrating on playing by the rules that have been assigned to Penn State in his rookie season. He's changed the tempo at practice to make it more NFL style, with short, fast-paced drills in which players quickly move to different stations. He's also added cold tubs for players to ice themselves down after a tough workout.
''These are the rules in which we play under,'' he said. ''But I think any time you have 65 scholarships and someone else you're playing has 85 scholarships, you obviously don't have as many players as that other team. So of course, there's always going to be some kind of injury issues that are going to come into play there.''
And O'Brien has also said his experience working with a 53-man NFL roster for game days will help him deal with the upcoming scholarship crunch.
He's going to need it.