COACH O’BRIEN: I wouldn’t say it’s a concern. I think it’s more that every year’s different. And so there’s definitely a group of guys from last year’s team that played a lot of football for us, John Urschel, Glenn Carson, Adrian Amos, that certainly have leadership ability, and were part of that leadership team last year.
So now it’s time for some of those younger guys to have a good spring practice and work hard and help us in that role, too. So we’ll see how that develops.
But this year is a different year, and I think we’ve got some good guys coming back that played a lot for us last year that will be good for us.
Q. Take us through the process, when you lose so many guys, I’m assuming during spring, you’re trying to fine tune things with every guy, take us through the process with so many guys, this guy has to work on throwing motion or something, each guy has a different thing.
COACH O’BRIEN: Well, each coach…so right after the season, we went out on the road and we were recruiting. But in addition to recruiting, what each coach was doing, they had free time, which was really on the weekends or a dead time in recruiting, is they were evaluating their own players from the previous season.
So they went through and they watched film from every game again and they evaluated all the guys that are coming back for us this year. And they went through it, and we have a little sheet that we draw up that basically, it’s things they did well, things they did poorly and things they need to improve on.
It’s very simple. It’s a simple sheet and then when the guys get back from winter break, we go through that sheet with them so that those guys know whether it’s something they can do in the weight room or conditioning, or when we start spring practice this afternoon, what they have to do to improve. So it starts there with the assistant coaches.
And then spring practice is very much about fundamental football technique, individual technique…how can Allen Robinson improve the way they runs a comeback; or how can Adrian Amos improve the way he plays man coverage and so on and so forth down the line. That’s really part of the spring practice. That’s why we have a lot of individual periods in the beginning and then some team periods at the end, a little bit different than the season.
That’s some of the process, it’s a long process, but it’s always an ever evolving process.
Q. Can you talk about what has you most excited going into spring practice, what you’re most looking forward to seeing, and on top of that, what one or two of your bigger concerns are?
COACH O’BRIEN: I’m just excited to be off the banquet circuit and back on the field coaching. Although I had a great time at all of the banquets, especially the Maxwell Award Banquet was a phenomenal night for Penn State and just a great night.
But really, at the end of the day, what we all love to do is coach and be on the field, and watch these guys improve from day to day. We really are fortunate because we work with a bunch of really good kids that work hard, that compete and so really, the biggest thing is we are just looking forward to getting onto the field coaching.
Personally, I’m looking forward to watching the quarterbacks, how they progress every day. I’m looking forward to watching the defense, how they progress every day with different things that they might be trying. I’m looking forward to watching all the different positions battles at running back and tight end and defensive line and linebacker.
So you know, just all the different things that go into the competition as a football team.
Q. How do you see the linebacking corps, it’s going to be with (Gerald) Hodges and (Michael) Mauti gone, how do you see them stepping in for those guys? With Mike Hull obviously at linebacker, he played a lot of roles for you last season; do you see him continuing to do that, or since he might have had more time linebacker, just be more traditional?
COACH O’BRIEN: We don’t have a lot of depth at linebacker, that’s for sure. We have guys there that played a lot of football for us last year, Glenn Carson, Mike Hull, and Nyeem Wartman didn’t play a lot, he got injured (vs. Virginia) but we think he has a really bright future. Ben Kline, won’t be (practicing) in the spring but we know that he’s going to help us in the fall as a special teams player and then fighting for time at linebacker.
I’m really looking forward to watching Hull, Carson and Wartman play together, because again, those are three guys that didn’t really play together that much last year. Like you said, it was Carson, Mauti and Hodges, and all three of those guys have had excellent off seasons.
Glenn Carson and Mike Hull have really worked hard. They are leaders on this football team. They are tough guys, good players and then Nyeem, I think he worked very hard this off season and we are looking forward to seeing what he can do.
But there’s certainly not a lot of depth there, so it’s going to be imperative for myself to monitor that and make sure that we are not giving those guys too many reps.
Q. You mentioned that you’re personally looking forward to seeing the quarterbacks develop throughout the spring. You obviously didn’t have a quarterback competition in New England and last year Matt (McGloin) kind of took over pretty early. What’s it like for you as a coach when you have a competition? Is it fun for you? Is there some anxiety seeing the guys go through everything day after day?
COACH O’BRIEN: It’s fun when you’re working with the type of guys that you’re working with right now. We have a very smart room; a hungry room. They are young, they listen, they ask great questions. They really want to be coached, so it’s going to be really fun to go out on the field and watch these guys practice.
You’ve known me now for awhile. I don’t feel a lot of anxiety over things like that. Just with this position battle, we are going to let it play out, and at the end of the day, we are going to have to obviously name a starter. I’m not into alternating quarterbacks.
I’m not saying that we’ll never do that but I’m not really a big believer in that right now. But we’ll let this thing play out and go into training camp and see what happens. But these are young guys that are very talented guys and it will be fun to coach them and watch them progress.
Q. Nyeem Wartman will be available for spring?
COACH O’BRIEN: Yes. The two guys that so you’ve got Ben Kline that can’t participate in spring because of his shoulder deal and then you’ve got Kyle Carter that will be non contact and you’ve got Steven Obeng will be non contact. He had a shoulder deal.
Then you’ve got Adam Breneman, who will be full go in the spring. But we are really going to monitor him early on here, because he’s a young guy, he’s coming off of a knee and we just want to do right by him from a coaching standpoint. But he’s going to be out there.
And basically, everybody else is ready to go.
Q. At this point how much can you say how the transition is to Coach (John) Butler on defense and how much of a learning curve do you anticipate the guys having in the spring?
COACH O’BRIEN: The foundation, the terms, the language of the defense will stay the same, so I don’t think that will be a big problem.
John, he’s an excellent football coach. A lot of you guys have been to practice and watched him coach. He’s very detailed. He’s intense. He’s a quick thinker. He’s done it before, albeit not at Penn State but he’s run a defense before. He’s just a very bright guy. I really enjoy coaching with him and he’s going to do a really good job for us.
Q. You talked yesterday about understanding the skill set of the team a little bit better, what everybody is capable of. Running backs got about 12 percent of your passes out of the backfield; can you talk about what you want to do with running backs this year offensively?
COACH O’BRIEN: Yeah, I’d love to be able to tell you exactly what I want to do with the running backs, but that would be awful stupid of me to do that.
So I’ll tell you what I think of those guys. I think all three of those guys can catch the ball. I think you’ve got three very, very different skill sets in the fact that you’ve got (Zach) Zwinak who is just around 235, 240 pounds; big, tough kid, very strong guy, had a great off season in the weight room.
Then you’ve got a guy like Billy Belton, who is not quite as big as Zwinak, he has got good quickness, he can catch the football. He’s lost some weight, he’s in better condition and we’re really looking forward to seeing what he does.
Then you’ve Akeel Lynch who had a tremendous off season in the weight room, improved his speed, improved his conditioning level and he’s somewhere in between size wise and all those different things I talked about early on, between Zwinak and Belton, so he’s a little bit of both.
So it will be fun to watch those guys and then we’ll have to, especially me, I’ll have to do a good job of putting them in the right spot to take advantage of what they do best.
COACH O’BRIEN: No question. DaQuan Jones we think is a really good player, and we think he’s had a really good off season and he’s in good shape. He’s strong. We’re going to have to monitor his reps this spring because he’s played a lot of football here at Penn State. But we really have high expectations for him going into next year.
Got Kyle Baublitz, who is a veteran player who had a lot of time last year as a backup player. He’ll be in there. He’ll play a lot this spring there. He’ll play a lot next year.
Then we’ve got some younger guys there: Austin Johnson, who we think has a chance to be really, really good player and hopefully sooner rather than later, but he’s had a really good off season and comes from a great family. He’s just a really good kid and we are really glad that he’s on our football team. We think that he can have a bright future.
Then we have got Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia, two tough guys that gave us a lot of problems on the Dirty Show (scout team) last year. I remember Matt Stankiewitch last year after one of those practices, we were sitting around just shooting the breeze and I remember him saying that Gaia and Derek Dowrey were strong guys that could hold the point of attack; and that was good coming from an All Big Ten center. That was pretty neat.
So we feel good about what’s there. Again, there’s not a lot there, but there’s enough there and we just have to do a good job of rotating those guys in and out and make sure we get the young guys enough reps to help them improve and progress.
Q. With Matt Stankiewitch gone, who will be at center?
COACH O’BRIEN: Ty Howle will be in that mix. He’ll be the starter going into the spring there. We’ve got Wendy Laurent, who will play there, too, and we’ve got Angelo Mangiro who will be in there. He’s got a little bit of a hamstring issue right now so he won’t be there initially. But hopefully he can get out of the tub and get on to the field because that’s where he needs to be, and he’ll have a chance to play center, too. He’ll be in that competition.
One of the things that people ask me about is the offensive line all the time and I probably need to do a better job of explaining this. So, like when we go out to practice today, we have a period called Specialists, it’s five minutes before we go to stretch. And we’ll have about six guys, and during Specialists, you have kickers and punters working; you have the returns, you have the centers and quarterbacks doing the center-quarterback exchange, and we’ll have about six centers.
So we teach everybody, just about, how to snap the ball. We teach (John) Urschel; Urschel can be a center. (Miles) Dieffenbach, he’ll learn how to snap the ball but he’s primarily a guard. Mac (McWhorter) does a great job of teaching tackles how to play guard. Some guys play all five positions, which is really extraordinary, and so we train a lot of guys to be center. But those three guys that I mentioned at the beginning will be battling for the center job.
Q. With a year under your belt, can you generally assess how much more comfortable and confident you are with the benefit of a year?
COACH O’BRIEN: Definitely more comfortable. I don’t know if I was ever confident. I’m definitely more comfortable. I understand the players better. I believe they understand us better. The staff really understands how we work, how long we meet, when to meet, all those different things, what our expectations are as a staff of each other and of the players.
I know how to get around better. I know how to get from Point A to Point B, even though it’s not that hard in State College, it’s still new when you’re brand new somewhere. I know people better; people that I work with on a daily basis, they know me better. Maybe they are starting to figure out my sense of humor, although, I don’t know, sometimes I wonder, but things like that. So, I definitely feel more comfortable, but definitely looking forward to getting going and watching how much better we can get.
Q. Today is a big day in basketball. Are you allowed to fill out a bracket?
COACH O’BRIEN: No. Don’t even; that’s….you’re a bad guy for asking that question (smiles). (Laughter).
Q. I believe you added another punter (Eli Skinner), but I think he might have been with you since like last October? Am I correct in saying he’s from the track team?
COACH O’BRIEN: We have a number of guys that will help us in the kicking department. Sam (Ficken) and Alex (Butterworth), going in, they will be our kicker and our punter. We have Eli Skinner, Renny Parthemore, we have got a bunch of guys there.
So there’s a lot of guys there that are going to and then again, it’s a whole different story about who is in the 105 (players) for training camp. So what we do in the spring is bring a bunch of guys in and see if some guys can help us and that’s probably what you are seeing there.
Q. I was referencing Skinner; did you go out and try to bring him in?
COACH O’BRIEN: No, he came over and tried out when we had our tryouts and we thought there was some potential there, so that’s why he’s over there.
Q. You talked about the quarterbacks yesterday. Do you expect (Christian) Hackenberg to be in the mix come august?
COACH O’BRIEN: Certainly he’ll be in the mix. At every single position, we are going to play the best players so, whether that means a guy…Christian can’t do anything about the fact that he can’t be here until June.
So just like Steven Bench last year, obviously we named Matt the starter but after spring practice or thereabouts in June there, but when Steven Bench came in, he worked his way up the depth chart to number two.
So yeah, Christian will come in and we’ll teach him the offense and give him some reps and see how he does, certainly.
Q. What you’ve discussed at certain positions, at what point are you going to be looking at not just redshirt freshmen but true freshmen to fill those spots?
COACH O’BRIEN: I think you’re talking about depth. Okay, so there are some depth issues when just strictly numbers. I just talked about the linebacker position so certainly it’s not because of lack of talent. That’s not what we are saying.
We think we have a lot of really good players but based on numbers, there are some depth issues, so a guy like Brandon Bell or Zayd Issah, we’ll be looking for those guys to come in here in the summertime and see what they can do; can they help us on defense; most importantly can they help us on special teams. That will be big.
Obviously, we’ve talked about Hackenberg at the quarterback position. Then as we move on down the line, as we look at the offensive line position, it’s hard to play as a freshmen but we have three guys coming in there that we think can add depth to that position.
Defensive line the same way, secondary the same way. We already have two guys in the secondary, Anthony Smith and Jordan Smith, they came in January. So we will see how they fit in. We have Richy Anderson on offense we think can help us as a slot receiver and maybe play some running back, too, in certain situations.
Yeah, there’s certainly some numbers issues but I think we are still dealing with a little bit of the same situation that we dealt with in 2012. I think when it gets really, really difficult is really ‘14 to ‘15, ‘16. In ‘13, even though we have depth issues, we don’t have to get down to 65 until 2014.
Q. You mentioned Kyle Baublitz. What are one or two things he might have to work on or focus on in the spring?
COACH O’BRIEN: Well, I see him, number one, as a really, really good guy that’s a smart guy, on and off the field; a tough, very tough player. Practices hard, plays hard, does everything you ask him to do.
He’ll play for us next year and we rotate a lot of guys in and out of that position, and he’ll definitely in my opinion, be in that rotation as long as he continues to improve.
Q. Would it be accurate to say that ideally you would like to redshirt Christian Hackenberg, or is that not necessarily the case?
COACH O’BRIEN: That is not necessarily the case. I mean look, you bring these guys in, they are on full scholarship.
Unless they are injured, you’re going to put them into the mix and let them compete and you’re going to play the best players. You are looking to go out there and put your best football team on the field August 31 (vs. Syracuse). We are a long, long way away from that. We are a long, long way away from that. But we don’t really look at anybody and say we are definitely going to redshirt you.
I’ve always said from an offensive line, defensive line standpoint, it’s difficult to play as a freshman because of the strength level and all of the different things that go into playing those positions.
But the farther you get away from the ball, the skill positions, it’s a little bit if you have the athletic ability, it’s a bit easier to play as a freshman if you pick up the system and you come in there and you’re physically in good condition and ready to go. But all those freshmen will come in and have a chance to compete.
Q. There’s been a lot made about the 2012. Can you talk about when your staff moved on the moment after the Wisconsin game; do you get a sense that your players have? And or do you consistently have to say, move on, it was a great story, but move on.
COACH O’BRIEN: I definitely get the sense that our players are ready to practice for 2013. I believe that they understand, we have talked about that as a staff, as a team, in team meetings.
Look, it was a really good start to a new era, but guys, we owe a lot to the seniors, and we won eight out of our last ten (games) and those were all good things, and we won our last game which is really good going into the off season. The 31 seniors did a great job but at the end of the day, we were 8 4. Started the season 0 2.
So, we’ve got a lot to improve on. We have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of positions that need to get better and we have kids that are working hard to do it the way we want to do it and they understand that and I think they are looking forward to getting out there this afternoon.
Q. Do you feel comfortable with the personnel moves you have made?
COACH O’BRIEN: We moved Garry Gilliam from tight end to tackle. That was a discussion that Garry and I had, and I think so far that’s been a really good move just from what he’s done in the weight room, how he’s adapted to that position so far and now we let him go play.
Then we moved Malik Golden, that was another discussion that Malik and I had. What we may do with Malik is work with him half the practices on defense (DB) and half on offense (WR), maybe the first seven or eight on defense and the last seven or eight on offense and do something like that.
We also moved Nate Cadogan from offensive tackle to defensive tackle and we are going to look at him maybe half and half, too, kind of like in that Malik deal. So those were discussions that we had with those players.
Certainly there are other moves that may be made because we are going to try to do what’s best for the football team. If we think a guy can help us on defense and maybe still play offense, because of the numbers that we have….we’ll certainly look at doing that, as the spring goes along, we’ll see how that plays out.
Q. With Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson, can you break those guys down? Are they the same type of quarterbacks, playing styles? How are they similar and different?
COACH O’BRIEN: I would say they are different. I think that there are some similarities. Two different people, first of all.
Steven has been in the program for a year and Tyler just got here in January and they are both working at it. I would say Steven probably knows it a little bit better than Tyler right now just because he’s been here for a year, which, that’s not Tyler’s fault. He’s catching up and he’s doing a good job learning.
They are both athletic. They both can throw the football, and now it’s going to depend on how well they can make decisions and how accurately they can throw the football. They both want to be coached. They are both on time. They sit in the front row and they both pay attention and take a lot of notes. It’s a really fun group to be around.
We have Austin Whipple and D.J. Crook in that room, too, that we think are going to really help us with depth. It’s just been fun to be around these guys so far.
Q. Last year you talked about settling in in the State College community, a little bit of an ongoing process for you. Having been here a full year, we have seen you at some basketball games and different events, can you just talk about how that process has continued and how you think that might benefit you and your family moving forward?
COACH O’BRIEN: When you’re a coach and it’s a coaching family, it’s funny at the Maxwell Awards, Chuck Pagano said it the best way: When we move, all we do is stuff all of our things in a box and get out of the office and go to the next stop. Our wives are in charge of selling the house, finding the schools, taking care of the insurance, all the different things.
So I think that I owe a lot to my wife, Colleen. She’s done a great job of getting acclimated to the area. I think she’s made a lot of friends. The kids have made a lot of friends. They really enjoy it here.
We love going to those sporting events, especially my son, Michael and I, go to the wrestling matches and basketball games. I only made it to one women’s game this year. I know Coquese (Washington) is probably mad at me, but I made it to the game that the won the Big Ten regular season (Pink Zone vs. Michigan), so I felt like it was good to be there for that. But, been to a bunch of sporting events. I really enjoy it. Just like going. I love watching sports. I really enjoy the other coaches around here, so it’s been a fun year.
Q. Going back to the running backs, last season Zwinak took charge, got the bulk of the carries and most of the production. Does he have a leg up on the other guys, or is it a clean slate for everybody?
COACH O’BRIEN: I think certainly he’ll go in as the starter so, if that means he has a leg up, maybe. I think it’s a new year. He knows that. Billy (Belton) knows that, and Akeel (Lynch) knows that. And as coaches, we know those players better.
So we are going, starting with me, we are going to do a better job of putting those guys in spots that take advantage of their skill set a little bit more, too. I think that comes down to coaching.
So it is somewhat of a clean slate. That’s a very competitive position. As long as I’m the head coach football here, that running back position will always be a competitive position. That’s a day to day, who practices the best, is the starter the next day, really. That’s how it evolves, because that’s a tough position; that’s a competitive deal. There’s a lot of good players there.
So that’s how we’ll do it. But Zach will go in as the starter. He’ll get the first rep today when we break the huddle.
Q. You said that Nyeem Wartman had a real good off season. Can you talk about what he did that really impressed you and the conditioning staff and speak to the kind of character he has?
COACH O’BRIEN: He impressed me last year just as a young linebacker, picking up the system; instinctive player. Just like all young players, he had to get in better condition, get stronger, be more detailed in some of the things that he did on the field. He’s a bright student off the field. He’s done well in school. We are excited about that for him.
My dealings with him, he’s a high character guy. He’s a good guy. Really enjoy being around him. And now in the off season, I think he’s had a really good time in the weight room. He’s stronger. I think he’s in better condition. He’s got to go out there and do it on the field, and we think that he will.
Q. You mentioned Alex Butterworth earlier. What are some things that you’ll be looking for from both of those guys this spring and what did they do in the weight room that will help them?
COACH O’BRIEN: Alex Butterworth won the specialist weight room person of the year for the winter; for the winter, not for the year. He had a really good Fitz (Craig Fitzgerald) gives awards for each position group and Alex won it for the specialists. He had a really good training session in the off season; I just want those guys to be more consistent. I want them to do it confidently. Sam Ficken should have confidence. He made some big kicks for us the end of the year. Like a golfer, right; you have some confidence when you make some shots.
I want Butters; I want him to be more consistent. I want to see the improvement and strength on the field. He’s a very good plus 50 punter, so he’s really good at dropping it inside the ten, dropping it inside the five yard line. Now we have to see him when he’s backed up, can he smash us out of there, you know what I’m saying. So those are things I’ll be looking for from Alex.