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Pa. coaches: Nittany staff out in force

8/23/2012

Michael Keith nearly finished his postal route on a cool May afternoon when an unfamiliar number crept across his cell phone.

This is Coach McWhorter from Penn State. I'm the offensive line coach ...

If it wasn't for the southern drawl -- "You don't get many of those around here" -- the Moshannon Valley (Houtzdale, Pa.) coach might have dismissed the call as a prank.

"In all my years of coaching around here -- I'm going on Year 12 right now -- that's the first time I ever heard from a Division I school," said Keith, who works about an hour from Happy Valley. "I was just shocked."

Added athletic director Tom Perry: "We have 34 kids out for our football team this year. It's a real small school. We never got a smell from Penn State before."

Bill O'Brien and his coaching staff have hiked, driven and hit the Pennsylvania recruiting trail like never before. They've visited powerhouse schools that produce All-Americans and schools, flanked by cornfields, that are more likely to produce farmers than FBS athletes.

"They've just gone out and had a presence," Liberty (Bethlehem, Pa.) coach Dave Brown said. "I think that's what they've missed for quite some time. I think a lot of coaches will tell you that. High school coaches looked at each other and said, 'Where are they? We don't see them.' And, now, that's definitely changed.

"I've seen them more in four months than I saw any Penn State coach over the last several years, that's for sure."

McWhorter arrived a week after that call in Houtzdale, a borough of less than 1,000 with a 30-minute drive to the nearest McDonald's. This was a place surrounded by family-owned businesses and homemade signs, a country town teeming more with wildlife than residents.

Only two players in school history played for an FBS school, to the knowledge of Keith and Perry. Ryan Gmerek earned a spot on the Nittany Lions' roster -- as a walk-on -- a few years ago, and Tim Janocko played fullback for Penn State more than 25 years ago.

"(McWhorter) was really down to earth," Keith said. "It wasn't like he was talking down to me, which I thought was really impressive -- and he was sitting there with a big national championship ring on his finger."

Three hours north of Houtzdale, it's more of the same. Cathedral Prep (Erie, Pa.) coach Mike Mischler said assistant coach Stan Hixon passed through the northwest and left quite an impression.

"I think O'Brien's done a great job in trying to take back Pennsylvania recruits," Mischler said. "I saw that immediately. He recruited our area, and he's going into schools that I would never recommend him going into."

Back at Moshannon Valley, affectionately called "Mo Valley" by the locals, McWhorter sat down with Keith for about 15 minutes. They chatted about how nice the area is, whether Houtzdale contained potential for FBS talent and how Penn State aimed to touch base with most in-state high school coaches.

Then McWhorter shook Keith's hand and left, no doubt to set up another appointment at another high school.

"For them, to take that time out of their schedule for Moshannon Valley, a Single-A school, is pretty impressive," Keith added. "It's shocking."