A handful of times each year, Dick Anderson and Mark Duda had the same futile conversation.
And it always ended with the same futile result.
Anderson, Penn State’s veteran assistant coach who was in charge of recruiting for the Northeast region, would check in with Duda to find out if the Lackawanna College coach had any Division IA-caliber football players in his program, or knew of any throughout the junior college ranks.
Duda invariably came up with one or two kids he considered can’t-miss prospects.
One year, one of those potential big-timers made it known that his childhood dream was to play ball for the Nittany Lions. All they had to do was show him where to sign his name and he was theirs.
There was, however, just one minor problem. Coach Joe Paterno’s longstanding rule at Penn State is to not recruit junior college athletes, a rule from which he’s deviated only a handful of times. He wants his players to come up through the system, pay their dues, then move into the starting lineup, most likely in their junior or senior seasons.
So, on the orders of his boss and with deep regret, Anderson had to tell Duda that the Lions weren’t interested in a 6-foot-8, 343-pound offensive tackle with an 86-inch wing span.
Lackawanna’s Bryant McKinnie was forced to go with his second choice, the University of Miami, where he became a consensus All-American and Outland Trophy recipient, all while helping lead the Hurricanes to the 2001 national championship.
“We have not done a lot with junior colleges,” Paterno said in response to criticism he received for bypassing McKinnie. “That doesn’t mean we’re right, it’s just the way things have gone.”
Six years later, things have changed.
Sometime today, two junior college offensive linemen are expected to sign official letters-of-intent to play for Penn State. Nerraw McCormack (6-6, 292) from Nassau County Community College in Long Island, and Ako Poti (6-5, 300) from San Francisco C.C., are being counted on to provide immediate experience to an O-line that has been depleted by graduation and departures.
How serious is the problem in Happy Valley? Just seven of the 14 offensive linemen listed on the Lions’ 2006 preseason three-deep depth chart are back in 2007. And just three of those returnees – center A.Q. Shipley, guard Rich Ohrnberger and tackle John Shaw – have extended game experience.
McCormack and Poti are the first JUCO players Penn State has taken in more than 20 years. According to the recruiting gurus, the Lions got themselves a couple of good ones.
“They’re both good enough to step in and play right away,” said Allen Wallace, publisher of California-based SuperPrep magazine and national recruiting editor for Scout.com.
Wallace, too, saw irony in Paterno’s change of stance. He called the situation “peculiar.”
Blue-White Illustrated publisher Phil Grosz believed the status of the team’s line left Paterno with no other option.
“Sometimes, you’re forced to change philosophy. It flies in the face of everything he has done in the past, but he needed to bring in some offensive linemen that were physically mature.”
Grosz, who’s followed Penn State’s program for several decades, learned that it took recruiting coordinator Mike McQueary three meetings with Paterno to convince the head coach to take McCormack, who chose the Lions over Kansas, and Poti, who said no to BYU, Kentucky, Texas Tech and Utah.
“He told Mike to make sure they were quality kids,” Grosz said.
Grosz laughed when asked if he thought Paterno’s change of heart smacked of desperation. After all, the Lions are set at almost every other position (with the possible exception of tailback), and some instant help along the O-line might be all this team needs to make one last run at a Big Ten or national title before their 80-year-old coach calls it a day.
“Who knows,” Grosz said. “Maybe Joe’s a Machiavellian.”