Memories of a snowy November Saturday have faded, 31 seniors have moved on and rumors of Bill O’Brien jumping to the NFL are more than two months old. Now he gets back to doing what he loves to do: coaching.
Penn State begins spring practice Monday, and will get to take the field 15 times before playing its annual Blue-White Game on April 20. O’Brien, who spoke at a press conference at the National Football Federation’s Awards Banquet on Sunday, said he expects practices to run more smoothly in his second year at the helm in Happy Valley.
“We know a lot more about these guys then we did last year at this time, there’s no question about it,” O’Brien said. “Last year, going into spring, we felt like we are really going to have to learn a lot about these guys in those 15 practices.”
Last season, spring practice marked the first time O’Brien got to officially oversee workouts with players. So, there was a learning curve for both O’Brien, in seeing what kind of players he had on his roster, and also for players, in learning a entirely new playbook and offensive scheme.
But with an eight-win season under his belt, and 16 months separating his official hiring at Penn State, O’Brien thinks the Nittany Lions’ veterans will be ready to “hit the ground running” on Monday. There are many players in new roles in the 2013 season, and the 43-year-old coach reiterated every season is different.
“As soon as that Wisconsin game was over, in the football building, we were looking forward to 2013,” O’Brien said. “We will always remember those 31 seniors, no question about that. But this year is a totally different team than last year. Certainly, there are some guys that played a lot of football for us last year that are coming back.”
The most glaring change between the 2012 and 2013 teams will be the quarterback position. Matt McGloin, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2012 (3,266 passing yards, 29 total touchdowns), has graduated and O’Brien now has to pick a new signal-caller.
The candidates to replace McGloin are rising sophomore Steven Bench, junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson and touted recruit Christian Hackenberg. Bench is the only one of the three to ever take a snap for the Lions, as he played in two games last season and went 2-of-8 for 12 yards.
Ferguson, who spent his 2012 season at California’s College of the Sequoias, enrolled at Penn State in January, and O’Brien said the two quarterbacks he currently has will spilt reps during spring practice. But any fans looking for a definite answer of who will start for the Lions in 2013 are going to have to wait.
“We will not name a starter at the end of the spring,” O’Brien said. “Then, sometime during training camp, whenever I decide, we’ll name the starter. …[The quarterbacks] are young, they’re hungry, they’re really bright guys.”
Hackenberg, who is rated as a five-star recruit by Scout.com, signed his letter of intent to play for Penn State in February but won’t be on campus until the summer. And though he’ll be behind in terms of experience with O’Brien’s system, the coach said Hackenberg will have a chance to compete for the starting job.
O’Brien noted fellow star prospect Adam Breneman, who Scout.com ranked as the third-best tight end in the 2013 recruiting class, is “good to go.” Breneman tore his ACL last July and missed his senior campaign at Cedar Cliff High School. Fellow tight end Kyle Carter (36 catches, 453 yards, two touchdowns in 2012), is still recovering from a season-ending wrist injury and will not be doing any contract drills in spring practice, O’Brien said.
But even with Carter’s injury, O’Brien sounded pleased with the depth and talent he has at the tight end position, but the coach’s most resounding feeling Sunday seemed to be one of eagerness.
“Now we have to put it all together, and that’s the joy of coaching. That’s what’s so fun about getting the heck out of these things and getting out on the field and coaching,” O’Brien said as he tugged on the suit he was wearing for the event. “And that’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”
“These things” were a blue suit and light blue tie. And at the end of the press conference, one reporter questioned why the coach with his heritage wasn’t wearing a green tie on Saint Patrick’s Day.
“Real Irish men don’t wear green on Saint Patrick’s Day,” O’Brien said to fill the room with laughs as he left.