Sunday, August 5, 2012

NCAA's restriction-free transfer "rules" decimating Penn State

Had the NCAA not administered its brutal sanctions with unprecedented swiftness on the heels of the Freeh Report in July, Penn State football likely would have done well this season. Instead, the team is losing key players and could struggle this fall - and for a long time.  

Of all the things the NCAA did to punish Penn State - and they did a lot, with huge scholarship losses, financial losses and postseason bans for years - perhaps none will prove more devastating to the football program than the timing.

The timing of the sanctions is killing PSU football, specifically the timing of the ridiculous total deregulation of transfer procedures for PSU players. By inexplicably and immediately permitting restriction-free recruiting of Penn State players - Head Coach Bill O'Brien likened it to free agency -  the NCAA created a Wild West, anything-goes, chaotic atmosphere about the PSU football program.

(Link to the "rules" for Penn State transfers:

And by doing this all in July, instead of August, it's having the intended effect: The Lions are losing lots of players. The program is leaking oil.

Had the timing been delayed just two weeks, had the NCAA used even a modicum of deliberation, the number of transfers would have been greatly reduced.

Coaches devoid of an ethical compass - that would be you USC and Oklahoma, along with some others - are exploiting the situation and swiping PSU players just a month before the season is set to start. The most notable and damaging loss is star RB Silas Redd, who transferred for USC. He is one of nine players at last count who are skipping out on probation-saddled PSU.

Make no mistake, these coaches are stomping on Penn State when it's down. And Penn State, as well as of course karma, will not forget. No, they're not breaking the rules - there aren't really any rules - but they are in gross violation basic ethics.

Due to the postseason ban, the NCAA is allowing PSU players to transfer without having to sit out a season, which is the right thing to do. If a player wants to seek another opportunity due to the sanctions, then that seems right, waiving the customary one-year wait to play ball again.

But submitting the players to incessant, overwhelming zealous recruiting assaults every day for weeks? Not the right thing to do. Definitely wrong, stupid, excessively punitive, counterproductive and lots of other negative words. (Also worth noting: schools currently on NCAA probation are allowed to recruit PSU players, and schools can exceed their scholarship limit for this year in order to take PSU players. In other words, the NCAA is doing everything possible to get PSU players to leave.)

But the worst thing for the Lions is the timing.

The NCAA sanctions were announced July 23, just 11 days after the Freeh Report was released, and involved no due process whatsoever from the NCAA. It was astonishingly rushed.

(It was also classic, shameful bullying and extortion:

In July, college football players are doing little except maybe finishing up a couple of summer classes on a semi-empty campus and working out. Basically, they are ripe to be plucked.

In August, preseason practice starts, and now not only are the players suddenly locked-in on the start of the season with daily, exhausting practices, but would-be opposing coaches who might have recruited them now are orchestrating their own practices, fine-tuning gameplans and don't have as much time or inclination to be out recruiting another team's player.

In other words, with the season so close they all can taste it, and with their minds so consumed, transferring is much less likely. (On Aug. 27, when classes start at Penn State, the rules for recruiting PSU players will be restricted and get back closer to normal. The first game is Sept. 1.)

So, had the sanctions been announced just two weeks later - like, say, tomorrow, on Mon. Aug. 6, which is the first day of practice for PSU, instead of on Mon. July 23 - it seems reasonable to assume the vast majority of those who are transferring would have stayed.

Whether by design or serendipity, the NCAA's mad dash to sledgehammer PSU last month has greatly enhanced the debilitating effect on this season. The offense and special teams have absorbed major body blows.

And such short-term debilitation could be very detrimental to the longer-term future of Penn State football. If O'Brien is to keep the crushing sanctions from turning Penn State into Indiana for the next decade, he needs to recruit very well. And in order to recruit very well, he needs two things in the short term:
  1. Minimization of player defections, thereby showing future possible recruits, "Hey look, all of the current players are staying, even when they could leave with no restrictions and are being actively recruited, so we must have something good going on here."
  2. To win football games, and thereby entice recruits by showing PSU still is a winning program, despite everything that transpired
O'Brien had Penn State poised for a winning season. Things were coming together nicely. Not a single player had transferred during the coaching transition and Sandusky scandal madness, which was remarkable and a testament to the school, previous coaches and new coaches.

Spring practice seemingly went well, and the talent base was in place to do well this fall, despite: significant graduation losses from last season; an almost entirely new system and coaching staff to get accustomed to; a relatively weak recruiting class; and a couple of positions with serious questions, notably the defensive backfield and quarterback.

Now? The loss of the dynamic Redd takes away the best and most explosive PSU offensive player by miles. Besides an inevitable dropoff in the running game of perhaps a yard per carry, which might not sound like much but is whopping, the diminished rushing now puts more pressure on QB Matt McGloin, which is not a good thing.

Next in line to be primary ballcarriers are Bill Belton (So.), Curtis Dukes (Sr.), Zach Zwinak (So.), Derek Day (Sr.) and Akeel Lynch (Fr.). Combined career rushing attempts: 67. That's 2-3 games for Redd. Only Dukes was a RB on scholarship at PSU last season - Belton was a WR, Zwinak is a FB/RB, Day is a walk-on who could be the third-down back, and Lynch is a true freshman. None are nearly as good as Redd.

McGloin's best receiving outlet was Brown. PSU's leading returning receiver, Brown was a big target (6-3, 210) who was excellent at adjusting to the ball in the air, i.e. he catches bad passes. Now he'll be doing that for Oklahoma, reportedly. That just feels so wrong: Yesterday he was an instrumental part of the PSU game plan for this season and closing in on graduation, tomorrow he practices with Oklahoma, and in less than four weeks he takes the field for the Sooners. Sigh.

That leaves Shawney Kersey, with 5 catches for 108 yards in 2011, as PSU's leading returning receiver. Redshirt juniors Kersey and Brandon Moseby-Felder are in their fourth seasons in the program and should competently step into full-time roles. Kersey has big-play potential. Several others, including Allen Robinson (So.), Eugene Lewis (Fr.), Christian Kuntz (Jr.), Alex Kenney (So.) and Matt Zanellato (RS Fr.) now could figure prominently at receiver.

The other major problem now for PSU is depth. Since the spring PSU had three starters or key contributors depart the program due to various off-field issues: CBs Curtis Drake and Derrick Thomas, and WR Devon Smith. Drake and Thomas were talented juniors in a thin secondary, and Smith, while experienced and fast, was not nearly as good as his reputation and will be missed less than Drake and Thomas.

Also, promising DT Evan Hailes retired this year due to blood clot issues, and massive DE Shawn Oakman was dismissed after an off-field incident, leaving PSU much thinner on the defensive line.

The breakdown of the nine recent transfers, listed in order of significance:

  • Jr. RB Silas Redd (USC) - Gifted runner bypassed opportunity to become a legend.
  • Sr. WR Justin Brown (Oklahoma) - Would have been PSU's best returning receiver.
  • Jr. K/P Anthony Fera (Texas) - Handled all kicking duties with aplomb for Lions.
  • Jr. LB Khairi Fortt (Cal) - Very good player was top backup at all three LB positions.
  • Fr. Jamil Pollard (Rutgers) - Promising true frosh could have cracked DT two-deep.
  • Jr. TE Kevin Haplea (Florida St.) - Second-string TE hadn't distinguished himself.
  • Jr. QB Rob Bolden (LSU) - Can change of scenery help him regain confidence? 
  • RS Fr. OL Ryan Nowicki (Illinois) - Was unlikely to play this season on deep O-Line.
  • RS Fr. DB Tim Buckley (NC State) - Walk-on would have been a non-factor on field.
Summary: Redd, Brown and Fera fill needs at powerhouse programs. Loss of Redd is huge and stings deeply, combined loss of Redd and Brown is massive, though PSU has some depth at WR, albeit inexperienced/unproven. Fera's transfer was in part due to a desire to be closer to his ill mother in Texas. The talented Fortt likely was frustrated by his inability to earn a starting spot at PSU's best position. Hard to see Haplea having a big impact at FSU unless the 'Noles TE position is really depleted. Bolden desperately needed a fresh start, and it's surprising he was offered one at such a prestigious program, as he was floundering in Happy Valley; Bolden was looking to transfer anyway, regardless of the sanctions. Unknowable what impact Nowicki and Pollard might have had down the road, but Nowicki's destination spices up the Sept. 29 PSU-Illinois game, especially after a reported eight Illinois coaches visited State College last week trying to seduce transfers. Pollard seemed a promising prospect, and he'll get the benefit of the doubt from PSU fans since he is staying nearer to home in New Jersey and was the first player to commit to PSU after the scandal broke. 

So Penn State football is embarking on an era of on-feld decline. It is inevitable. The only question being, how sharp will the decline be?

How much can O'Brien, his staff, the players and PSU football supporters stem the negative tide?

McGloin, among others, has hailed O'Brien for keeping the ship afloat and doing a tremendous job under the circumstances. It's hard to imagine anyone handling the mayhem better than O'Brien has. Also, some outstanding team leaders have emerged, among them Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, John Urschel, Jordan Hill and Michael Zordich. And eventually the chaos about Penn State and the football program will diminish. The games will begin and time will pass and some semblance of normalcy will set in.

What doesn't kill you might make you stronger, but PSU still will need some luck this season. Any injuries to starters on the defensive line, secondary, running back and quarterback will be highly debilitating, as would injuries to any of the star players, who will be counted on for big plays this season. (In order to not jinx those star players, we'll refrain from naming names, but you know who they are, and a few of them might have been mentioned in the previous paragraph.)

Also, O'Brien likely will eschew redshirts for almost all true freshmen due to the transfer sanctions. Players who have not participated in a game this season can leave and be immediately eligible. So in order to prevent frustrated players from switching teams at halftime of the opener against Ohio and suiting up for the Bobcats in the second half, O'Brien likely will try to get as many on the field as possible. More realistic, and also entirely legal, would be a PSU player sitting out the first game for whatever reason, then transferring to Virginia or Temple and lining up against the Lions in Week 2 or 3. Crazy, but it could happen.

The bottom line: Penn State likely will finish somewhere between 4-8 and 7-5 this season. If the Lions go 6-6 or better, and avoid any embarrassing results, and if attendance and enthusiasm stays strong throughout the season - don't underestimate the value of fan support to the program right now, it's vital to have an enthusiastic 100K or more at every game, regardless of how the team is performing -  and if key players stop transferring, and if some new star players emerge (Belton? DE Deion Barnes? OT Donovan Smith? DB Adrian Amos? Kersey? DT DaQuan Jones? S Malcolm Willis?) well then that will be as good a start as PSU football could hope for as it embarks on this long period of sanctions and probation.

It will give O'Brien and staff something positive to bring the recruiting table. It will keep the fan base optimistic. It could help the Lions avoid the 2-10 and 3-9 seasons that could plummet Penn State football into a long, deep tailspin that would turn the 2000-04 Dark Era into pleasant memories

The Sandusky scandal, the Freeh Report and the NCAA sanctions have put Penn State football in an extraordinary position. It will take a most extraordinary effort from extraordinary coaches, players and fans to pull the program through it successfully.

No comments:

Post a Comment