CHICAGO — The questions are more football-centric these days at Penn State. Of course, there are inquiries about the sanctions, how the program is coping with the loss of scholarships and depth concerns. But now it’s about football, just the way Bill O’Brien wants it.
He took nine questions in an open media session last month and only one dealt with the bruising recoil of NCAA punishment. Even that was innocuous enough with a reporter asking about working through the job’s challenges.
“Really, I’m here to talk about the 2013 team,” O’Brien said. “You know, a lot of things that we talked about last year, when I was here, it’s water under the bridge. We’re in a situation at Penn State that’s unprecedented, sure. But at the same time I’ve said this over and over again, our staff, myself, we’re thankful for our players.”
No other questions were asked about the collateral damage from the worst scandal in sports history. Penn State now is a year removed from a sex abuse scandal that cost the athletics department $60 million and the football program four years worth of bowl appearances. The program is capped of 65 scholarships through 2017 coupled with the allowed exit of 10 key players last year rob Penn State of its depth. It’s a heavy punishment for what the NCAA considered a complicit staff in covering up the child sex crimes of former assistant Jerry Sandusky.
While the program hopes for an early parole from at least a few sanctions, O’Brien is more focused on keeping the Nittany Lions competitive. The fact he did so a year ago was borderline miraculous. Starting players transferred to USC, Oklahoma, Texas and other schools and were granted immediate eligibility.
After an 0-2 start, in part because of kicking woes, O’Brien and a focused senior class held the unit together. They became tough, efficient and bold. Losing kicker Anthony Fera to Texas forced the Nittany Lions to reconsider traditional fourth-down plays. So O’Brien went for the first down 34 times, many of which were on non-traditional situations. Penn State converted 19 times, most in the Big Ten.
Penn State won five consecutive games, all of which by double digits, until losing to unbeaten Ohio State. A close, tough loss at Nebraska provided the Nittany Lions’ only other Big Ten blemish. In pure symbolism, the senior class was celebrated on senior day with induction to Beaver Stadium’s wall of fame alongside other championship squads. The team upset Wisconsin in overtime and made Penn State proud again, hardly because of its 8-4 record. It was a masterful inaugural campaign for O’Brien, who replaced the legendary Joe Paterno.
But this year O’Brien will need just as much mastery to keep the Nittany Lions winning. Penn State features a different, smaller cast with recruitment restrictions now taking place. Gone is the best of leaders, linebacker Michael Mauti, along with linebacker Gerald Hodges, defensive tackle Jordan Hill and quarterback Matt McGloin. The quarterback is a newbie: either sophomore junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson or true freshman super-recruit Christian Hackenberg.
“One thing that’s really exciting about working with young quarterbacks is that you get a chance to really mold that quarterback,” O’Brien said. “You get a chance to really teach that quarterback.”
Penn State does bring back the Big Ten’s best wide receiver in Allen Robinson, winner of the league’s top wide receiver honor. Tight end Kyle Carter was a freshman All-American after catching 36 passes. John Urschel was a first-team all-Big Ten guard and graduated with a 4.0 in mathematics.
The losses are more stout defensively. Glenn Carson played alongside Mauti and Hodges last year, but now Carson needs to lead like the others.
“Glenn is certainly a guy you would describe as high-character guy, very intense, heart-and-soul type of guy,” O’Brien said. “Glenn’s not a real rah-rah guy. Glenn is very serious about his position as the middle linebacker at Penn State. He understands the tradition of linebackers at Penn State and obviously linebacker U.”
There was enough of a core last year to keep the Nittany Lions competitive. As that core erodes, staying healthy is pivotal for the team to keep up with Big Ten power players. Where some programs can make a recruiting mistakes, Penn State cannot. Still, O’Brien likes his team, regardless of the challenges.
“The rules are what they are,” O’Brien said. “And that’s what we play under. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Unlike a year ago, O’Brien left the stage a minute early when reporters stopped asking questions. It’s the only time thus far he’s quit with time on the clock.
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