Optimistic offseason for Nittany Lions

Penn State finished 8-4, in 2nd place in the Big Ten Leaders Division

Associated PressDecember 25, 2012 

Wisconsin Penn St Football

Injured Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti (42) is introduced during a senior recognition ceremony before an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

GENE J. PUSKAR — AP

— Star linebacker Michael Mauti’s college football career had just come to an end in November when he spotted the next generation of Penn State football players.

So, he decided to do what he had done time and again during his Nittany Lions career: He helped others, and imparted some inspirational words along the way.

Adam Breneman, one of the top tight end prospects in the country, is one of them, and he listened intently. Mauti indeed passed the torch of leadership to Breneman and some other high school seniors on recruiting trips to Happy Valley that day, setting the tone for a critical offseason at Penn State.

Indeed, there is no bowl game to rally around this season. No sunny destination dancing in the Nittany Lions’ heads. No fun-filled reward for all of their hard work in this season of recovery at Penn State.

But there is hope. There is optimism. And there is Year 2 of the Coach Bill O’Brien era to sculpt.

No better time than the present.

Under O’Brien, Penn State finished an overachieving 8-4 with a second-place finish in the Big Ten Leaders Division. The Nittany Lions went 6-2 in conference, and likely would have been a lock for a New Year’s Day bowl game. As it is, Penn State is not in a bowl for the first time in eight seasons.

But there is much to build on. An emotional 24-21 overtime win, for instance, over Wisconsin in the finale sent the program into the offseason on a high note.

And O’Brien will need that in his first full offseason to secure a recruiting class amid scholarship cuts. The sanctions – levied in July for the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal – limit Penn State’s recruiting classes to no more than 15 a year for the next four years, starting with the 2013 class to be signed in early February. Most teams can sign 25. There is also a four-year postseason ban to digest.

O’Brien will also need to find new leaders. Mauti was one of a group of seniors who helped keep most of the team together in the frenzied weeks after the NCAA announced the punishment.

Breneman, a highly touted senior from Camp Hill, Pa., has a chance to be in that leadership mix someday. He has been part of a contingent of recruits who have been vocal about keeping their commitments despite the penalties.

“Now, it’s our turn to come in, and, in a couple years, lead the program,” Breneman said recently, recounting Mauti’s postgame words to him. “That was definitely very motivating to talk to him.

“It’s a huge thing. Big shoes to follow up.”

Breneman, coming off a right knee injury that sidelined him for his senior season, plans to enroll at Penn State in January after finishing his prep work a semester early. That will enable him to participate in spring practice.

There’s an extra benefit for Penn State if players officially join the program in January, instead of waiting until early February to declare their college choices. January enrollees count against 2012, when there are no scholarship limits. That means the 2013 team could have more 15 new scholarship players while still meeting the NCAA sanction guidelines.

So far, recruiting has been good, especially given the unprecedented circumstances of the past year. Joining Breneman in January will be junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson, a quarterback who figures to compete with Steven Bench.

Mauti is moving on, too, after a left knee injury sidelined him for the season finale against the Badgers. His father, Rich – himself a former Nittany Lion – has declined to offer more detail on his son’s injury. But he did say that the younger Mauti was going to get back into shape and will prepare for the NFL draft closer to home in New Orleans.

But the work he’ll leave behind in State College will never be forgotten. After a draining 2012 season – both emotionally and physically – Michael Mauti will clearly be known in Penn State annals as one of the program’s best leaders.

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