Lions prep for huge weekend

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill Kavanaugh wipes the crust from his eyes before pulling up to Penn State's football building at 6:30 a.m., an hour before the sun peeks over Mount Nittany.

Kavanaugh, the Nittany Lions' director of player personnel, doesn't pause to stare at the yellows and reds of the changing autumn trees. He has just one topic on his mind this Wednesday -- recruiting -- and has time for little else.

Does he have an accurate sheet of prospects? Is there enough room in the recruiting lounge? Has someone proofread the recruits' names? A list of unending concerns and questions fills his mind and the coaching staff's like a balloon ready to burst. Ohio State is coming to town and this Saturday's recruiting visits, under the lights and cool air of Beaver Stadium, are the biggest of the season -- and there's still a lot of work to be done.

"When there's a big game on the field, there's a big week with recruiting," Kavanaugh said. "And this is big. We're playing against a really good 8-0 football team."

Kavanaugh hurries to his second-floor office, where he munches from a box of Honey Nut Cheerios stashed in his desk in front of one of his three computers. There's no time for home-cooked meals or diners on this Wednesday, no time to make toast or run some morning errands.

This is Ohio State week. More than 100 prospects -- from Georgia, Maryland, Ohio and numerous states along the East Coast -- will converge on the sideline, and the Nittany Lions' staff must be prepared.

"Oh yeah," 2014 cornerback D'Andre Payne said. "I want to look at everything that goes on. The atmosphere and everything there is big because I'm starting to narrow schools down."

Kavanaugh, along with Penn State's coaches and more than two dozen other employees, will center their entire week around a 12-hour window on Saturday during which they'll try to impress recruits such as Payne. They'll hold recruiting meetings, answer hundreds of prospects' emails and coordinate every conceivable step for a day that begins hours before Penn State's biggest die-hards enter through the gate and ends more than an hour after those stands empty and the sprinklers spring up.

"If we realize we haven't choreographed something," Kavanaugh said, "we make sure it's choreographed for next week."

Kavanaugh, a round-faced man who hasn't shaved in a few days, still manages a perpetual smile. His wife brings him some tomato soup for lunch, and he still glances at his computer between bites. It's 4:30 p.m. now, but he insists he's far from the busiest man on campus.

Recruiting coordinator and running backs coach Charles London parks his gray SUV into his usual spot Wednesday while streetlights still brighten the downtown at 4 a.m. The bald, fast-talking coach will devote about four hours of his day to speaking with high school seniors or answering recruiting emails -- still leaving him more than 10 hours, after breaks and meals, to fine-tune the game plan against Ohio State.

Bill O'Brien strolls past Kavanaugh's office at least five times, checking in for updates in an office cluttered with neon sticky notes. O'Brien and the coaches all meet in the morning, and Kavanaugh -- who rests a pencil over his left ear -- touches base with them periodically. Penn State's position coaches can mostly handle calling up high school seniors to see when and if they plan on attending the OSU game. But everyone else, the juniors and underclassmen, falls to Kavanaugh and other employees.

Kavanaugh will receive close to 300 emails or phone messages every day this week. NCAA rules prevent him from calling non-seniors directly, so he'll speak with coaches or family members. Some recruits will tell him at the last minute their plans have fallen through; others might give him 48 hours' notice of their intent to claim recruiting passes. Kavanaugh's fear is the staff forgets just one recruit, somewhere among the thousands of emails and calls, and the prospect shows up without a pass to his name.

"How you're greeted and how you're welcomed has a big effect because all the recruits want to feel loved," Penn State commit Jordan Smith said. "This is a big game because these recruits are going to see that atmosphere and see what it's all about."

Kavanaugh and Co. plan everything. They know who will greet the recruits at the door, they draw up a seating chart and debate over the best fit, they print -- and proofread -- name tags. And then, once printed out, someone will thumb through them once more to make certain there are no errors.

Some student volunteers, between a full slate of classes and a part-time gig at Starbucks, will take those names and create player cards that assistant coaches use like flash cards for a vocab test.

These volunteers will place three or four players to a page, complete with a mugshot, stats and school information. The assistant coaches then will find these packets folded inside their lockers, and they'll commit them to memory.

For Kavanaugh, Penn State's coaches and many more devoted employees, this week is busier than most. Kavanaugh found himself lying in bed Tuesday night as he tried to conceal his cell phone -- cloaking his desire to surf the web for recruit updates -- in order not to draw a rebuke from his wife.

Like most employees, Kavanaugh can't get football or recruiting out of his head. His time away from the office is just that -- time away from the office, not necessarily the job. Penn State's future hinges on its recruiting, and that fact isn't lost on anyone inside the Lasch Football Building.

"It's easy because everyone here enjoys this so much. There isn't a time I've walked through that tunnel that I don't get chills, so all this stuff is easy," Kavanaugh said. "But it's all about making sure everyone feels welcome.

"It's a big week."