Bill O’Brien Opens Spring Practice
Bill O’Brien was about halfway through his first spring practice press conference Monday afternoon when I got my turn at the mic. Changing the subject from the string of player personnel queries that understandably dominated the media questioning, I asked O’Brien if he’d had a chance to find a routine. It’s been a hectic seven weeks since he took over as Penn State’s head football coach, and I was curious how he was settling in.
“Other than the fact that I’m still in room five—well, I can’t give my room number out, but I’m on the fifth floor at the Penn Stater,” O’Brien said. “But I’m very settled in.”
The fact that he’s still living out of a suitcase speaks to how immersed O’Brien has been in his new role. That immersion goes even deeper this week as the Nittany Lions begin spring practice under their new coach, who will be getting his first live look at his players in actual football drills (winter workouts are limited to conditioning drills only). What has he learned so far, and what does he expect out of the next four weeks of practice, culminating next month with the annual Blue-White Game? Here are some highlights from Monday’s presser:
—The quarterback race is wide-open, with Matt McGloin, Rob Bolden, and Paul Jones currently sharing snaps. “There’s no starter,” O’Brien said, “and there won’t be a starter named possibly until the night before the Ohio game.” Meaning the 2012 season opener on Sept. 1.
—O’Brien hasn’t watched film of last year’s Penn State offense. “One of the things I wanted to do when I got here was start with a clean slate,” he said. “I didn’t want to make any judgments, especially offensively, not really knowing what they were doing scheme-wise. I wanted to evaluate them first on winter conditioning, then on spring practice.” I imagine he’ll learn a lot about his QBs over the next month.
—O’Brien said the team’s new strength and conditioning program, with an emphasis on free weights and the contagious intensity of new coach Craig Fitzgerald, has already paid dividends. He mentioned redshirt junior Adam Gress, a 6-foot-6, 306-pound offensive tackle, as a prime example. “He’s had a heck of a winter, and he’s already changed his body—he’s gone from looking one way to looking like a V-shape. That’s what you’re looking for.”
—Without getting specific, he also confirmed changes in the football support staff, alluding to rumors that have flown the past few weeks about some longtime secretaries, video staffers and others who are no longer with the program. “We’ve made a lot of changes there, and we’re really happy with the changes we’ve made,” he said. “One thing you’ll see with me, I like the phrase ‘less is more.'”
—The offense won’t review its own film until after spring practice. Until then, they’re watching tape of the New England Patriots’ offense, which O’Brien helped coach the past four years. “The basis of the Patriots’ offense will be run here,” O’Brien said, emphasizing that fans shouldn’t expect the Lions’ offense to be as elaborate or explosive as the Pats’ high-powered attack—at least, not right away. “Let’s be real clear: We’ll put in the core, then we’ll build on it in training camp.”
—He got specific about how the Lions will utilize their tight ends the same way the Patriots did—hopefully with a similar outcome. With O’Brien on staff, New England regularly went with two and even three tight ends, creating match-up problems for opposing defenses and leading to lots of touchdowns. “One of the things about the tight end position in our system, second to quarterback, it’s really the hardest position to learn,” O’Brien said. “You can do so many different things, but it’s all up to how those guys learn.”
—Asked about who will be running the offense from the sideline this fall, O’Brien was blunt: “Oh yeah, I’ll call the offensive plays.”
Ryan Jones, senior editor