STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Penn State lost a special teams ace to Texas, while two more Nittany Lions have left Happy Valley without ever playing a game for first-year coach Bill O’Brien.
Just days before the start of training camp, Penn State’s roster remained in flux Thursday after the NCAA allowed players to explore transfers in light of strict sanctions against the program for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. It set up a collegiate version of free agency in which opposing teams could cherry-pick players off the NIttany Lions’ roster.
Anthony Fera was the second starter to leave after the kicker-punter announced Thursday he would be booming kicks for Texas this year. The junior, who is from the Houston area, will have two years of eligibility left.
Fera said the last few weeks had been difficult. His mother was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which also factored into Fera’s decision.
“Shortly before I arrived on campus, the most important person in my life was diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis), making it more and more difficult to travel each weekend from Texas to see me play,” Fera said in a statement released by the Longhorns. “I’ve been afforded the opportunity to give back to my family and make their lives a little easier by transferring to a university much closer to home, The University of Texas.”
Fera’s powerful right leg made him one of the top specialists in the Big Ten after hitting 14 of 17 field-goal tries and averaging 42 yards a punt last season. He said he loved Penn State, teammates, the fans and coaches — both past and present.
As of Thursday afternoon, eight players have left Penn State since the NCAA imposed penalties on July 23 , including a four-year bowl ban and significant scholarship reductions. One of those departing players, though — backup quarterback Rob Bolden — was given permission to look at other schools before the punishments were announced.
Despite the defections, Penn State noted that of the 117 players on the team’s roster on July 23, 109 players, or 93 percent, had stayed as of Thursday afternoon. The count would include scholarship players and walk-ons.
The entire starting defense, including standout tackle Jordan Hill and linebackers Gerald Hodges and Mike Mauti, is expected to remain intact. Otherwise, the team has lost just two starters — though tailback Silas Redd and Fera were two of the most important players as O’Brien embarked on his rookie season as coach.
Redd, a 1,200-yard rusher, is the most crushing loss after defecting to Southern California on Tuesday. A revamped offense patterned after the potent attack at O’Brien’s previous employer — the New England Patriots — may have to rely on converted wideout Bill Belton to carry the load at tailback.
On Thursday, Fera followed Redd out the door of the football building. Fera offered gracious praise for Penn State, and boasted he would “proudly say that I am a Penn State alum!”
“I will be giving my all to the Longhorns,” Fera said, “but will always be pulling for my friends and Nittany Lions family as well.”
Redshirt freshman Ryan Nowicki, an offensive lineman, was dropped from the Penn State roster later Thursday. Defensive lineman Jamil Pollard was headed to Rutgers, Clyde Folsom, Pollard’s former coach at West Deptford (N.J.) High School, said Thursday.
Folsom said the lineman planned to finish some summer courses online and will join the Scarlet Knights when the team reports for camp Sunday.
“Rutgers was in his plans a year and a half ago, but there was a concern about Jamil being a qualifier, so with the concern about being a qualifier and the transition in coaches, he just kind of leaned on Penn State a little more,” Folsom said.
While O’Brien appears to have successfully kept most of his core players, especially on defense, roster stability may not return until Monday, when the Nittany Lions open their training camp with a morning workout.
In light of the unprecedented sanctions, the NCAA allowed Nittany Lion players to seek new schools and play immediately. Most players considering a transfer are trying to decide before their new schools start fall practice.
Players can transfer throughout the season, though they lose immediate eligibility to participate with a new school once they play a game for Penn State in 2012.
Florida State announced Thursday that backup tight end Kevin Haplea had joined the team, two days after the junior left Penn State. His father, Gene Haplea, said his son was leaving behind a lot of friends whom he wished well.
“I think (Penn State) is going to do fine,” Gene Haplea said in a phone interview. “They’re going to probably have to work a little harder, but it’s a quality bunch of kids out there. They’re going to fight like hell for every inch out there.”
At least six 2013 recruits have also re-affirmed their commitments to Penn State, while at least two 2013 prospects have rescinded their verbal commitments.
But the transfers, along with a handful of other offseason departures unrelated to the sanctions, are taking a toll on Penn State’s depth. Senior receiver Devon Smith, and junior cornerbacks Curtis Drake and Derrick Thomas left the team earlier in the offseason for off-field reasons.