Finals have wrapped up. The first year of college for Penn State’s 2012 recruiting class is now over.
Those that remain have endured a freshman year like none other in the history of college football. And if the Nittany Lions stay afloat as they wade into the deep end of the NCAA sanctions, it will be in large part because of the group of first-year players that stuck it out.
Two District 2 alums could be right at the forefront in linebacker Nyeem Wartman and wide receiver Eugene Lewis.
“It was huge for all of us,” Wartman said at the end of spring practice. “I remember when we got the sanctions and everything, we had a little Facebook group where we were all talking to each other — asking where everybody stands. Just talking to each other.
“Some guys left, of course. No one was forcing them to stay. But the guys that stayed — I feel like whoever came here in our class is a tight-knit, real close group. Because there was a lot we had to face.”
That would be an understatement.
The school they picked was plunged into a horrific child abuse scandal. Their coach was fired three months before national signing day. And a month after they arrived on campus, the program was hit with unprecedented sanctions that would keep them out of bowl games, prevent them from playing for titles and limit the talent around them.
Throw all of that on top of the typical turmoil that builds up in the life of a college freshman. And because of the sanctions, any of them have been free to transfer without penalty since last July.
Many contemplated it.
“Overall, I was asked the question, ‘If you were not to play football, would you still go to that school?’ ” said tailback Akeel Lynch, who mulled a late decision between Penn State and Iowa last summer. “And to be honest, I could not leave Penn State. The academics and the atmosphere — I just love this place.”
Understandably, not everyone stayed.
Nineteen players initially signed with the Lions in 2012 — 18 on signing day in February plus tight end Jesse James, who graduated high school early and enrolled that January.
That number is down to 16 after one year. Defensive lineman Jamil Pollard transferred to Rutgers last summer for family reasons. Quarterback Steven Bench finished the spring behind Tyler Ferguson in the starting quarterback battle and will pick a new school in the next month. Offensive lineman Anthony Stanko has opted to leave the team but remain enrolled at Penn State.
Of the remaining 16, five appeared in a game last season — Wartman, James, Trevor Williams, Da’Quan Davis and Jordan Lucas. Wartman, however, did not lose a year of eligibility because a knee injury allowed him to get a medical exception.
Now entering the second year, the Class of 2012 has a chance to make a bigger impact on the field.
Wartman has an inside track to start at linebacker.
“The year for him to kind of soak as a redshirt freshman was good for him,” defensive coordinator John Butler said. “And now that he’s getting into the fire at that position, he’s a good player who’s going to continue to get better.”
Lewis’ talent, in part, allowed the coaches to shift classmates Williams and Malik Golden from the receiving corps to the secondary.
“I think (my redshirt year) helped a lot,” Lewis said after making his public Penn State debut at the Blue-White Game. “At first I wasn’t expecting to be redshirted, but I realized that I had a lot that I needed to work on. And at the end of the day I knew it was going to help me.”
James was already one of the Lions’ most dangerous weapons as a true freshman. Austin Johnson has drawn praise at defensive tackle, where he could conceivably start in the fall. Lynch will work into the mix in the backfield and could develop into the team’s most well-rounded ball-carrier. Tight end Brent Wilkerson caught a touchdown at the Blue-White Game.
DT Derek Dowrey, DT Brian Gaia, DB Jake Kiley, C Wendy Laurent, DB Jordan Lucas, DE Evan Schwan and WR Jonathan Warner round out the class.
Many of them got their opportunity when the new coaching staff led by Bill O’Brien came aboard last January. Penn State had six high-profile verbal commitments ultimately sign elsewhere, with the likes of Ohio State and Florida, because of the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Bench, Davis, Laurent, Lucas, Lynch, Schwan, Warner and Williams all committed to O’Brien’s staff in the month before signing day.
Those that had originally pledged to Joe Paterno’s staff, like Lewis and Wartman, had to visit the campus again and ultimately choose Penn State a second time.
The whole experience has left a chip on their collective shoulder.
“We all know there’s a lot of pressure on this class because supposedly we’re a so-called ‘weak class’ (after the sanctions) for Penn State’s standards,” Wartman said. “So we all know we’ve got a lot to prove.”
When the entire class arrived last summer, they began to bond. It continued when the season rolled around, as the guys who were in line for a redshirt became closer through their work on the scout team.
“Oh yeah, it was real quick,” Lynch said. “Me, Eugene, Brent Wilkerson. We just said, ‘Hey, who’s gonna do this? Who’s gonna make the play this week?’ Each week there was a scout player of the week, and we’d compete each week. It was real fun.”
Now they get some time off with friends and family before summer classes start and work for next season begins.
They will do so with the knowledge that they still have an added burden to carry as members of the Lions’ last full recruiting class until 2017.
“We knew there was going to be adversity,” Wartman said. “We knew that people were going to talk about us. But we’re sticking close together. We’re just trying to keep that family feel around here.”