An Evening with Penn State Coach Bill O’Brien

Bill O'Brien was on the PSU Coaches' Caravan this past week.This past Tuesday my wife and I attended the PSU Coaches Caravan at the Bellevue in Center City. Although you certainly won’t get all your questions about the state of the Penn State football team answered you can learn a lot by listening carefully and reading what comes out of similar gatherings in other locations. This past week alone Coach Bill O’Brien was in Reading, Lancaster and Harrisburg PA along with Philadelphia, Baltimore and DC. In the next several days he will be in New York City, Scranton and Pittsburgh among other locations. This is actually down from last year when he spent 3 weeks on the road as opposed to just 2.

Of course one purpose of these gatherings is to try to sell tickets. Despite the rosy PR coming out of Happy Valley both season ticket sales and game day attendance were down last season with only one game-Ohio State-actually selling out. This year will probably see more of the same with only Michigan and Nebraska looking like hard to get tickets. There are of course reasons for this-but the main 2 are beyond Coach O’Brien’s control: bitterness by some over how the Paterno Era ended and the resulting draconian NCAA sanctions.

Coach O’Brien is looking forward not backwards though. He specifically mentioned that to the audience. Unfortunately as reflected by the vote for new PSU Trustees too many alumni (and I suspect non-alum fans too) are obsessed with the past and restoring Paterno’s image. I on the other hand wish to look to the future. Yes the next few years won’t be easy-but PSU Football is in good hands as long as Bill O’Brien is in charge there.

As for some specific topics it appears that a game in Ireland in September 2014 is a distinct possibility. If that happens the opponent is most likely going to be Central Florida which is coached by one George O’Leary-for whom O’Brien was an assistant when O’Leary was head coach at Georgia Tech. In fact, had Notre Dame not foolishly fired O’Leary because of ”Resumegate” in early 2002 his offensive coordinator at Notre Dame would have been one Bill O’Brien. As it turned out this probably was a good thing for PSU as O’Brien might very well be coaching another team wearing blue had he in fact stayed in South Bend.

On specific positions O’Brien does not seem concerned about quarterback. This may be because almost every other position on the offense is loaded. In particular the offensive line and tight end appear to have several NFL prospects (Watch left tackle Donovan Smith this fall.). However, he clearly is a bit worried about linebacker. The starters-Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman-are fine. But behind them there is almost no depth. Ben Kline is capable-but he had offseason shoulder surgery. Clearly linebacker is one area PSU has to be focusing on in its upcoming recruiting.

Speaking of recruiting PSU already has 7 verbal commitments to its February 2014 class. Of course that leaves only 8 more slots. Other than perhaps a quarterback if the right player, i.e. Andrew Ford, high school teammate of PSU TE Adam Breneman, is interested I would expect these recruits to be non-skill position players-as most of the early commits have been skill position players.

Coach O’Brien refused to give a prediction for the upcoming season’s record-although he did admit that an undefeated season is probably unrealistic. Reading between the lines it is clear to me that he expects improvement over last season despite the player departures. He specifically stated that the players know what is expected of them in the weight room, in the film room and on the practice field. He also expects leaders to step up among the seniors just as “The Fab Five” (my term) did last season. (Those five would be Micheal Mauti, Matt McGloin, Jordan Hill, Gerald Hodges and Micheal Zordich.). My best guess is that O’Brien isn’t sure yet who those leaders might be other than RG John Urschel.

Now the dead time begins. Spring practice is over. “Unofficial Voluntary” workouts will of course continue as big time college football is truly a year round sport. However, other than occasional announcements on recruiting (none of which can come from PSU due to NCAA rules that apply to all schools) we probably won’t hear much about PSU football until late July. Certainly we will hear less than last summer with first the Sandusky trial and then the NCAA sanctions-both of which kept PSU in the headlines a lot. Sometimes no news really is good news.

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Chuck Reynolds

Chuck has followed PSU football and Philly sports since coming to Philly for law school in the late summer of 1981. In fact he went to his 1st live Philly sports event-a Phillies game at the Vet against Cincinnati-before attending any law school classes. Chuck currently practices civil trial law in New Jersey which unfortunately results in a lot of contact with New York sports fans. You can follow Chuck on Twitter @SportsChatChuck, a handle invented by his wife Mary Kay, a PSU alum and diehard Phillies fan.