Column: Running into the future

If he hasn't already, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien might want to consider getting a patent on the term "run-on."

Matt Lehman went from run-on to a key part of Penn State's offense.

It's going to get a lot of use in and around the Lasch Building during the next few years.

It isn't as though run-ons, or walk-ons, or whatever you want to call non-scholarship players, haven't been important factors for years at Penn State, particularly in O'Brien's first season. Matt McGloin, Matt Lehman, Derek Day, Jacob Fagnano, Jesse Della Valle and Evan Lewis, all of whom played key roles at one point or another this past season, were all at one point or another during their careers attending Penn State without scholarships.

But as the Nittany Lions enter the meat of the sanction era, who runs on to the team -- and who then runs on to the field -- could play even greater roles in Penn State's success.

The Nittany Lions' last scholarship commitment in the Class of 2013 came from junior-college quarterback Tyler Ferguson on Dec. 14. He enrolled in spring semester classes a few weeks later. It is unlikely O'Brien and the staff will add any more scholarship players to what is currently a 17-member class between now and Signing Day, but they have been hard at work rounding up run-ons from around the state or, in some cases, around the country.

There are local guys, like State College lineman Evan Galimberti and Lock Haven running back Von Walker. There are some Eastern Pa. guys, like Malvern wideout Chris Geiss and Kennett Square defensive back Tom Pancoast. And there are guys who were willing to pass up scholarship offers from less heralded programs to pay their own way at Penn State, like Indianapolis quarterback Jack Seymour.

As the likes of McGloin, Deon Butler, Josh Hull and so many others have shown us over the years, sometimes there is very little that separates a five-star talent from a preferred walk/run-on. And although the Nittany Lions will need the Christian Hackenbergs and the Adam Brenemans of the next few classes to be what everyone is hoping they'll be, they're also going to need a few run-ons to, like McGloin and Butler and Hull were, be more than what many are expecting they'll be.

To compete at the game's highest level, it isn't enough to have four or five superstars. You need to be solid at every single position. You can't hide a so-so linebacker behind even the best defensive tackle, and the most accurate quarterback isn't much good if his right tackle can't protect him. And it isn't enough to have merely a full starting lineup of capable players; you need depth, and lots of it.

Yes, Alabama wins national titles because its players are well-coached and its schemes are proven but mostly because of its ridiculous glut of talent. The Tide's second-stringers can -- and often do -- match up against any other team's starters. When one guy goes down with a knee or hamstring injury, another one steps in to take his place, and the beatdown goes on.

Injuries are as much a part of the game as audibles, but the season cannot come to a crawling halt because of one or two injuries to major players. At some point down the line, the run-ons that join the team this summer will be asked to step in for a play, for a quarter, for a month. The tackles they make or miss, the blocks they make or don't make, could and likely will decide games.

Some run-ons sign on knowing they will never see a snap on Saturdays. They play for the love of the game and the bonds they form with their teammates. The run-ons who will populate Penn State's roster for the next few years will be asked to do more. Some of them will eventually wind up with scholarships. A couple may eventually wind up as starters. If they can take up the slack when called upon, and Penn State's stars perform as expected, the Nittany Lions will win their share of games. If they can't, it doesn't matter what the stars do. And the stars know it as well as anyone.

"They're just as important as us. They're going to fill the depth charts, they're going to compete, they're going to push everyone and they're part of the team," Hackenberg said recently. "They're teammates, whether or not they had a scholarship coming in. Look at what Matt McGloin did this year. He was a walk-on guy. You never know what can happen. You just go into it to compete and push everybody. They're great adds, great assets, especially with the scholarship restrictions."

O'Brien knows he will be expected to deliver results whether he has 85 scholarship players or 25, and he expects to deliver them as well. The guys he'll need to help him get those results won't receive a lot of fanfare this Wednesday, but the Nittany Lions will need them just as much as the four- and five-star recruits that will.

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