March 18, 2013 at 2:22 PM
Despite the blustery winter weather, spring was in the air this afternoon at Beaver Stadium as coach Bill O'Brien addressed the media prior to the team's spring practices starting today.
Penn State will practice 15 times before the annual Blue-White Game on April 20 and O'Brien discussed several hot topics as the team transitions into preparation for the 2013 season, such as the quarterback competition, change in leadership and special teams play.
But before the team begins the spring season, O'Brien said the transition period from the memorable 2012 roster has already taken place.
"I definitely get the sense that our players are ready to practice for 2013," O'Brien said. "It was a really good start to a new era and we owe a lot to the seniors, and we won eight of the last 10...But at the end of the day, we were 8-4. We started he season 0-2. We have a lot to improve on."
O'Brien said the change in leadership is not an issue he foresees for the program as they head into spring ball, as many already have experience in this role from last year. The second-year coach said he predicts several players, such as offensive lineman John Urschel, linebacker Glenn Carson, cornerback Adrian Amos and others will be looked to as leaders.
"I wouldn't say it's a concern," O'Brien said. "I would say it's more that every year is different."
O'Brien said the excitement level for the team is high, but perhaps even more so for himself and the coaching staff after an offseason filled with award ceremonies and banquets.
"I'm just excited to be off of the banquet circuit and be back on the field coaching," O'Brien said. "What we all love to do is coach and be on the field and watch these guys improve day-to-day."
As for specific roster members, O'Brien also discussed the quarterback competition between rising sophomore Steven Bench and JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson. They will both be in the mix in the spring.
Despite the uncertainty, O'Brien said he doesn't feel much anxiety over the current quarterback situation, where he hopes to utilize one player consistently in the fall.
"It's fun when you're working with the type of guys that you're working with right now," O'Brien said. "I'm not into alternating quarterbacks. I'm not saying that we'll never do that. I'm not really a big believer in that right now."
Incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg, a highly touted recruit, could also be in the running upon his arrival in the fall, O'Brien said, saying his ability to pick up the playbook on the fly will be key.
"Certainly, he'll be in the mix. At every single position, we're going to play the best players...We'll give him some reps and see how he does, certainly."
O'Brien said one of the areas where the Nittany Lions are thin is at linebacker, where Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges left holes in what was the strength of the defense last year.
"We don't have a lot of depth at linebacker," O'Brien said. "We have guys there that played a lot of football for us last year...I'm looking forward to watching [Michael] Hull, [Glenn] Carson and [Nyeem] Wartman play together...It's going to be imperative for myself to make sure that we're moderating that and not giving those guys too many reps."
However, with regard to depth, he made sure to note that this will not be as much of an issue this year as it will be as the sanction-era goes on.
"I think when it gets really difficult is 2014, 2015, 2016. We don't have to get down to 65 [scholarship players] until 2016."
Special teams was often an area of focus last season when kicker Sam Ficken and punter Alex Butterworth experienced up-and-down years. O'Brien said both have looked more confident in the offseason, especially in the weight room.
"Sam Ficken should have confidence," the coach added. "He made some big kicks for us at the end of the year...[For Butterworth,] I want to see the improvement and strength on the field. Now we got to see him, when we're backed up, can he smash us out of there."
There aren't many injuries on the radar this spring, but O'Brien did say linebacker Ben Kline will not be participating due to an arm injury. O'Brien said tight end Kyle Carter and safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will have been declared no contact, while rising freshman Adam Breneman, who suffered an ACL tear less than a year ago, will be "full-go" but they'll be closely moderating him.