It is a season of change at Penn State, where the Nittany Lions are conducting their first spring practice without Joe Paterno since 1949.
When he was named Paterno's replacement in early January, new head coach Bill O'Brien promptly overhauled the staff. The former New England Patriots' offensive coordinator, O'Brien is installing an offense based on the one he used in the NFL. Meanwhile, new defensive coordinator Ted Roof is going with the system he used while holding the same position at Auburn from 2009-11.
The Penn State players studied the different schemes in the offseason but could not actually practice them until spring ball began March 26. Four sessions into the spring, heads were still spinning.
It's kind of been a fresh start, with everybody learning the different terminology, defensive end Pete Massaro said Wednesday morning. It's just something we have to adjust to. It's kind of like learning a new language. After a while, we're just going to start thinking in the new terminology.
Defensively, at least, Roof's base set will look like the one former PSU coordinator Tom Bradley used. Both men prefer 4-3 looks. But Roof has said he intends to be multiply aggressive, where Bradley was known for having more of a read-and-react approach.
It's not something that's revolutionary or something that's going to take a lot of time to learn how to play, Massaro said. It's something I think we'll learn how to play pretty quickly.
Much more significant changes are taking place on offense, where O'Brien is, in effect, the coordinator.
It's obviously a lot different with a lot of new things we didn't do before, tight end Garry Gilliam said.
Gilliam would know because the tight ends are focal points of the new offense. In New England, O'Brien was known for his creative use of tight ends, with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combining for 169 catches last season alone. Penn State's tight ends combined for 15 catches in 2011 and 20 total over the past two seasons.
There's probably a little more thinking in terms of reading defensive coverages and changing our routes, Gilliam said of the tight ends. We're involved in a lot -- pretty much everything.
Gilliam said O'Brien and the offensive staff have been patient to date, no doubt because of the steep learning curve.
He teaches (the offense) very efficiently and we're learning it very well, Gilliam said.
The players have noticed a more efficient approach to practice overall, too. They now have a large clock out on the field that times each segment of the practice, with an air horn going off at the end of each segment. Then the players are expected to run to the next drill.
Within each segment, a quick pace it kept.
Physically, it's a lot faster, Gilliam said. (O'Brien) is a lot more precise in what he wants.
They've been tough practices, they've been hard-nosed practices, Massaro added. He knows what he wants to accomplish and the coaches know what they want to accomplish. Everything has been very precise. I think they've been very good so far.
Asked how much of the new offense has been installed, Gilliam laughed and replied, I have no idea. But I know every day he's installing new stuff.
At the start of the spring, O'Brien said everyone on the team had been given the proverbial clean slate. He was not looking at film of the 2011 Penn State offense. Players would earn jobs based on their performances in the spring.
Gilliam said the coach has been good on his word.
The people who are going to be on the field (in the fall) are the people who learn the offense most efficiently and do what they have to do physically, he explained.
Penn State has 15 spring practice sessions, in all, culminating with the annual Blue-White intra-squad scrimmage April 21. Massaro is confident the Lions will learn what needs to be learned by the conclusion of drills.
We're really just adjusting on the fly, Massaro said. Eventually, we'll be comfortable with it. I'll say by the end of the spring we'll have a good grip on the things the new staff is looking to do.
It will take a few weeks, he added. But by the end of the spring we'll be on sound footing.
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