With preseason camp set to kick off Monday, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said he expects significant improvement from a particular member of his squad.
Despite winning multiple national coach of the year awards after leading the sanction-strapped Nittany Lions to an improbable 8-4 record last fall, O'Brien is hardly resting on his laurels. The 2012 season marked his first as a head coach at any level, and he viewed it as a learning experience.
His personal goals for 2013?
“Keep it moving,” O'Brien said. “Always try to improve. And, obviously, never, ever be satisfied with where you're at. Just try to get better.”
O'Brien arrived at Penn State after serving as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots. So there were two elements to his transition. The first was from the NFL to college, where academics come into play. The second was from assistant to head coach.
“One thing I've tried to do a better job with in my second year … is to organize my day a little better,” he explained. “So (there is) football, recruiting, academics, injury reports or medical issues -- that's kind of how I do it. And marketing.
“I try to have a checklist and think about the night before what I'm going to do the next day,” he added. “But when you've never done it as a head coach, you're definitely learning on the job. And I learned a lot in my first year.”
One of the most difficult parts of the transition has also been one of the most rewarding.
“When you're a coordinator or position coach, you've got your own little bubble world there that you're worried about,” O'Brien said. “When you're the head coach, now you have a hundred or so kids. So I learned a lot about the players. That's my favorite part about the job, the players.”
But he can't convey his overall message to those players by himself. So he relies on his staff to pitch in. And along those lines, there is an emphasis on everyone using the same talking points.
“I learned a lot about organization and how important it is just to basically state your philosophy -- your goals -- just about every time you have a staff meeting,” O'Brien said. “So your staff understands where we're heading and we're always pointing in the same direction. I don't think you can say those types of things enough.
“We want to be a tough, smart football team,” he added. “We want good kids. We want to be able to play in all kinds of weather. I talk about that a lot. Whether it's recruiting or X's and O's, I've learned to communicate better.”
Asked about mistakes he made in 2012, O'Brien rattled off the following:
• During games: “Doing a better job managing the clock before halftime. There were a couple of games (in 2012) where I could have used our timeouts a little better to give us a chance to have a two-minute drive to maybe kick a field goal before halftime. Or end-of-game situations. Or just call some better plays because I'm communicating better with the guys in the press box this year.”
• During practice: “Just really doing a better job of gauging what our team needs on a week-to-week basis. Who are we playing? If we're playing a team that plays a lot of man-to-man coverage, we need more man-to-man coverage in practice. Just be on top of that more.”
• In recruiting: “I think this is (with) myself and our staff -- just doing as good a job as we can do of background checks and making sure we know what these kids are all about to the best of our ability. It's not an exact science, but trying to make sure we know.”
It was interesting to hear the same coach who squirmed in his chair when asked about his accomplishments in 2012 patiently run through the aforementioned list of areas where he felt he should have done a better job. But it was not necessarily surprising, given his drive to improve.
“I made a lot of mistakes,” O'Brien said, “and I learned from the mistakes.”