STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) - Brennan Franklin was ready to play junior college football at Eastern Arizona, when Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof called the linebacker.
The scholarship offer from a Division I school was too good to pass up, even if it came after the NCAA had announced sanctions against Penn State including a significant decline in scholarships.
While Penn State may have lost more than a half-dozen players in light of the penalties July 23, Franklin will have the distinction of being the first scholarship player to sign in Happy Valley since the NCAA announced its decisions.
The Nittany Lions open preseason camp Monday.
``The first thing he asked was if I'd ever been in a fight,'' Franklin said of Roof in a recent phone interview from his hometown of Peoria, Ariz. He replied ``yes.''
``He said, `That's good, because that's what this is going to be.'''
Football scholarships will be a precious commodity soon at Penn State. The NCAA - as part of its landmark punishment of the program for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal - reduced the maximum number of scholarships that Penn State could offer each year from 25 to 15 for a four-year period, starting with the 2013 recruiting class. And Penn State can't have more than 65 scholarship players at any time for a four-year period starting in 2014, down from 85.
The scholarship reductions could sap new coach Bill O'Brien of the ability to nurture promising high school recruits who aren't ready to contribute right away in college - all while Penn State must also prepare for foes who don't face such restrictions.
And Penn State is already taking a roster hit after the NCAA allowed current players to transfer and have immediate eligibility with their new school. Nine players have done so, the latest being wideout Justin Brown. The leading returning receiver with 35 catches, Brown is the first senior to leave Penn State.
Junior tailback Silas Redd is the most crushing loss after the 1,200-yard rusher left last week for Southern California. Brown and Redd are the only two starters to leave, while the transfer of standout kicker-punter Anthony Fera will hurt special teams.
At the least, the entire first-string defense is expected to remain intact.
Still, this wasn't the kind of makeover that O'Brien expected when the former Patriots offensive coordinator came from New England in January to take over for fired Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno. O'Brien has said he has a plan to get through the crisis, but hasn't yet offered details.
O'Brien does know how to work with a limited roster since NFL teams are held to 53 players during the season.
``You're talking about having experience in how to put that roster together, learning from the best in (Patriots head coach) Bill Belichick. How to practice,'' O'Brien said at Big Ten media days in Chicago last month. ``So there's no question that my NFL experience ... will certainly help.''
Athletic scholarships cover tuition and fees, room, board and required textbooks. The NCAA also allows athletes to accept other, academic scholarships and need-based aid, such as federal Pell Grants, though there are certain types of aid that athletes sometimes cannot accept because of NCAA amateurism or financial aid requirements.
On Saturday, about 150 former players gathered for the Penn State Football Letterman's Club annual golf outing in Happy Valley, which raised money for three scholarships sponsored by the organization for former Nittany Lions.
But the lifeblood of a major Division I program is the ``grants-in-aid'' scholarships which are the subject of the NCAA penalties. A four-year bowl ban is also among the penalties.
``The one thing I look at - what the scholarship limit does - is it affects your depth,'' said Chuck Burkhart, a quarterback for Paterno in the late 1960s, before the golf outing. ``An area that (Penn State) has never done but I actually hope they look at is junior college transfers, because you're not going to have as many kids. You're not going to have a feeder system for the next couple of years.''
Walk-ons, too, will need to fill roster holes. Or, they may even play more important roles on scout teams, and play the parts of the next week's opponent in practice. That, in turn, could mean establishing closer ties to Pennsylvania high school coaches who would counsel prospects weighing decisions, for instance, about whether to accept a scholarship offer from an FBS mid-major or FCS school, or to walk on at Penn State and pay in-state tuition ($15,560 for freshmen and sophomores).
``They'll come up with a plan that makes it work,'' Burkhart said. ``The main thing is they will be playing football on Saturdays, because the students who are here, they shouldn't be affected by what happened all those years ago.''
Penn State has had its share of success stories of players who started as walk-ons, including current Seahawks receiver Deon Butler, who owns the school record for career receptions with 179. Safety Neal Smith walked on in 1967 and became an All-American two seasons later. Current starting quarterback Matt McGloin also began his career as a walk-on.
``I had a few offers from D-I schools, D-I AA, I always said don't sell myself short. If you work hard, you can earn it, you can always transfer down,'' said Graham Zug, a receiver who finished his Penn State career in 2010. He became a key contributor his final two seasons.
Whatever the makeup of the team, Zug said ``The toughest thing will be just going against all the scholarship guys, everybody is as athletic as you. In high school, you can be a standout guy. You come to a college, everybody is the same, everybody is just as good if not better, so it's that constant challenge of going against people that are the same skill level of you.''
Sean Fitz, the editor of the website Lions247, which follows Penn State recruiting, said the school has had a reputation of being a place where walk-ons have had the opportunity to make an impact.
``It's a matter of how much exposure can a kid get,'' Fitz said. ``Can he come in here and expect to play more than a glorified tackle at practice?''
The sanctions won't prevent O'Brien and the coaching staff from continuing to go after top-level recruits - though it may affect whether those recruits listen to their pitches. Part of O'Brien's strategy has been that Penn State will still play on television, and plays seven home games in front of raucous crowds at 108,000-seat Beaver Stadium.
At least six recruits from the 2013 class, led by Pennsylvania tight end Adam Breneman and Virginia quarterback Christian Hackenberg, have re-affirmed their verbal commitments to Penn State since the sanctions were announced. Fitz said the coaching staff is already telling 2014 recruits that they would get back to bowl games during their careers since the school could return to the postseason in 2016.
Justin Kurpeikis, a defensive end from 1997-2000, said the scholarship reductions could be ``addition by subtraction.''
``You don't have as many guys to bring in, so you have to have the right kinds of guys,'' he said. ``There are a lot of teams from MAC schools and things like that, that don't have the five-star recruits but they've got the right guys. If you have the right guys that love to play football and love Penn State and do it the right way ... then you have the chance to beat anybody.''
It's that kind of attitude that seemed to attract Penn State to make an offer to Franklin, the linebacker from Arizona who nearly went to junior college this season. His father, Brandon Franklin, said his son drew interest from Penn State earlier in the year, among other schools looking at him as a preferred walk-on.
Interest also peaked late from other Division I schools after Franklin decided to go to Eastern Arizona. In the end, he changed his mind after getting the call from Roof.
For Brennan Franklin, it also didn't hurt that Penn State was one of his father's favorite teams.
``I've had a lot of people supporting me and a lot of people giving me messages saying `We can't wait to have you,''' he said. ``I can't wait to get out there and just start.''
Just like the rest of his new teammates after an offseason to forget at Penn State.