No player is safe, but some are safer than others.
Each week, Bill O’Brien said there is a battle for every position in practice to keep his team’s competitive drive at its peak.
“There’s a reason why you practice,” the coach said. “You practice to compete and get ready for games and life is about competition. We try to compete everyday, and we try to be as fair as we can, as coaches.”
Some positions have seen the same players all season.
“Is it easy to beat out Matt Stankiewitch at center?” O’Brien added as an example. “No. Of course he’s probably going to be our center. But he knows that every week that he’s got to go out and perform in practice, and that’s the same with every position.”
Other positions have been in more of a flux.
The running back has been Penn State’s most uncertain spot heading into each game. Six different players have been handed the football this season, while at least eight have lined up in the backfield.
Zach Zwinak has been the most recent go-to choice for Penn State’s ground attack, but Bill Belton, Derek Day and Michael Zordich have also had opportunities as the primary guy.
“[The competition] doesn’t bother me at all,” Zwinak said. “It makes us better as a running back corps. We go out, we push each other, and we help each other get better in that sense.”
On defense, players also compete for their jobs on a daily basis. At the beginning of the season, safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was in a position battle with Jake Fagnano. Now, Obeng-Agyapong starts, and cornerback Stephon Morris said the redshirt junior is the most improved player in the secondary.
Penn State has had five different players line up to return kicks for special teams. O’Brien said the kick and punt return spots were wide-open heading into Purdue. Jesse Della Valle ended up returning kicks and Evan Lewis returning punts, but Adrian Amos, Alex Kenney or Belton could be in the mix any given week.
Other positions have seen change for other reasons. The wideout corps has lost multiple receivers since the spring, but Allen Robinson and Brandon Moseby-Felder have since established themselves on top of the depth chart.
O’Brien uses four different tight ends, but all for different roles in his schemes.
From early 2010 until last summer, four players fought to be Penn State’s starting quarterback at some point. But this season, the quarterback has been the most stable position built around one person — Matt McGloin.
“Everything is earned,” O’Brien said.
Safety Malcolm Willis said the players like practicing under these conditions.
“As a competitor, you like a coach like that, who wants to play the best players and it doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a fifth-year senior,” he said. “If you’re making plays and doing what you need to do within your role, you’re going to go on the field.”
O’Brien has shown confidence in underclassmen this season. Players such as Kyle Carter, Deion Barnes and Robinson have assumed starting roles in just their second year. Other guys such as Jesse James, Trevor Williams and Da’Quan Davis are involved as true freshmen.
At the end of every week of practice, O’Brien informs players what their job will be for the upcoming game. Willis said understanding that job is essential to Penn State’s winning formula.
“Everybody on the team has a role, and coach O’Brien really stresses that to everybody in every team meeting,” Willis said. “He says everybody needs to have a role and understand their role on the team, whether that’s as a starter or you’re a core special teams guy, it’s a really big part of the operation we need to do.”