Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien held his weekly press conference at Beaver Stadium Tuesday.
It featured updates on key injuries, talk about the season-opening win over Syracuse and much more. FOS staffers Mark Brennan and Greg Pickel let you know the details in the video above.
Transcript courtesy Penn State Athletic Communications.
COACH O’BRIEN: As I did last week, I just to update everybody on the injury situation. DeShawn Baker is out, Brad Bars is out for the season, Kyle Carter is day to day, we don’t know about his participation (for Saturday) but we think he’s doing better. Kasey Gaines is back to train. Matt Lehman will be out for the season, Brent Wilkerson is out for a longer period of time. Same issue there, he had surgery but he will be back at some point in time, we think later in the season.
Other than that, few bumps and bruises but that’s where it’s at right now.
I’m sure somebody was going to ask me about this, but this weekend, obviously, we have a tough opponent coming in here in Eastern Michigan, we will talk about that as we go here but also it’s the reunion of the 1973 team, 12 0, beat LSU in the Orange Bowl. John Cappalletti, won the Heisman Trophy and personally with my love of college football and the love the staff has, we can’t wait to welcome those guys back. It will mean a lot to our fans. We’re counting on a great turnout from our fans not only for our football team, and the game against Eastern Michigan but also for the fact that that team is coming back.
That was a fantastic team. They were 12 0, they beat Louisiana State in the Orange Bowl, and they had a Heisman Trophy winner on that team, so we are thrilled that have them back on the field with us this weekend.
Q. Bill, now that you’ve had a chance to look at the tape, can you further evaluate DaQuan Jones’ performance Saturday?
COACH O’BRIEN: DaQuan Jones had a great game. We use the phrase “Next Level” when we talk about football, and there is a prime example of a guy that did it. He played very physically in the game and made a lot of really key stops for us; had a fantastic sack, where he split a double team. He’s going to be tough to handle this year, because he’s powerful, he’s strong, he’s smart, and he’s worked extremely hard to get to this point.
Q. Bill, I was wondering, can I get your thoughts just on how the kicking game and the special teams played overall against Syracuse I thought you had a pretty big edge in that game as it unfolded and the progress that the unit has made since the start of last season, the kicking game?
COACH O’BRIEN: We start with the specialists themselves. I think Sam Ficken is a much improved kicker. Now it’s one game, and he has to continue to do that and no one knows that better than him, but when you look at the Syracuse game he obviously had 4 or 5 touchbacks, and he was 3 of 3 in the field goal department. I thought that was a really good start for him.
The kickoff coverage itself needs to improve. We’ve got to get off blocks better, we’ve got to understand the direction of the kick better and that will happen. There are some young players on that team and you will hopefully see improvement there as the year goes on. I think when you look at the kickoff return team there is some improvement there. I believe we can block it better and return it better so we’re going to work hard on that this week.
You look at the punt team, I believe that Alex Butterworth is an improved punter but he knows he can be more consistent. He and I talked about that yesterday out on the practice field. He’s a good kid, works extremely hard at it, and he had a couple of nice kicks, one was a high snap, he went up and caught it and kicked it 46 yards.
The return team, we want guys to stick on their blocks better and open the lanes better and we think there is improvement being made there. Overall it’s improved, but not near where it needs to be.
Q. Bill, how well do you think Christian (Hackenberg) handled himself running NASCAR (no huddle) on Saturday?
COACH O’BRIEN: We didn’t do it that much, we did it some. When we did do it, I thought he did a nice job of it. He’s got good poise, he’s a smart guy. Like I said after the game, it’s one game and he needs to make improvement. We spent a lot of time in the film room yesterday showing these guys the tape and personally spent a lot of time with Christian, showing him the mistakes that he made and where he’s got to improve week to week. He’s got a great demeanor, great poise, smart guy, fun to coach and he’ll improve.
Q. Bill, you’ve been an advocate for Matt Lehman since last year. What impact will his absence have on the team this year?
COACH O’BRIEN: Certainly anytime you have a player the caliber and type of guy that Matt Lehman is go down, it’s not good. It falls into the category of “next man up.” The next guy has to be able to fill it and do it, whether it’s another tight end or somebody else. (Fullback) Pat Zerbe is doing different types of things for us, guys like that.
But, to talk about Matt, I just absolutely love guys like that, guys that overcame the odds. He was at Shippensburg, he comes here and he tries out and he makes the team and, you know, a year later he’s on scholarship.
He’s really, really worked hard to improve his game this off season, came back in the training camp and had a fantastic training camp, and I told him the other day, I said, “Matt, I’ve seen a lot of knee injuries and I can give you many, many examples of guys, most recently Mike Mauti, who just made the Minnesota Vikings, who hurt their knees and have gone on to have tremendous careers,” and I think he’s a guy that can fall into that category. If he’s willing to work at it, he’s got a future in football ahead of him.
Q. Do you have more insight into your running game since we talked to you after Saturday? Anything to do better or maybe just anymore understanding of it? Are we close to seeing Akeel Lynch in the game this week?
COACH O’BRIEN: First of all, the running game, the game plan starts with me. I thought the guys blocked hard up front, I don’t know why people think that the offensive line struggled. The offensive line when the play was called properly and the right play was put into the game, the offensive line blocked very well. We have a very good offensive line. The problem was the coaching; starts with me. We’ve got to do a better job with the running game, and we’re going to work hard on it this week and hopefully you will see improvement this week against Eastern Michigan.
Q. How about Akeel Lynch? Is he close to seeing time at running back?
COACH O’BRIEN: Let’s see how the game goes. He’s a great kid, working hard in practice and we continue to evaluate that position every day.
Q. You’re tough on yourself when it comes to play calling, as you alluded to. How much was the calls or the individual mistakes?
COACH O’BRIEN: We’ve got to call the plays better, design the plays better and we’ve got to get the players to execute better. Again, we’re going to work hard on that this week and. I look at the game, and it’s your job, your guys job, Joe, I’m not addressing this to you, Joe, but it’s the media’s job to evaluate the game, and you guys are doing you’re knowledgeable football guys, but I think it’s important to look at the positives.
We went into MetLife Stadium with a true freshman quarterback. I think it was 104 degrees on the field throughout the game. We didn’t have our best wide receiver in the first half of the game because of what I decided to do there.
Defensively, we put the defense in some tough situations, we did this with 65 scholarship players. We’ve got a tough, resilient football team. Personally I’m going to try to do the best I can to improve this week as a head coach and do a better job offensively, defensively and special teams.
To me, I just think we should be talking about that a lot. I think what’s going on here look, it’s just one game but I think it’s an important subject to make sure that we all understand how, again, we’ve got a great bunch of kids that have stayed committed to Penn State and I think it’s great fun to be around them.
Q. Bill, before the season you said that you had changed some things in your practice and stuff to deal with the heat. It looked like at the end of the game on Saturday like the defense in particular had a lot of energy, like maybe they looked like the fresher team. Do you feel like that stuff worked? Can you tell us a little bit about what kind of things you do to make that happen?
COACH O’BRIEN: Yeah, certainly. Fitzy (Craig Fitzgerald) and I talk about this on a daily basis. Even when we’re on vacation. When I took a week off during the summertime, I was calling him every day and we were talking about the conditioning level of the team. We know we’re going to get these guys stronger because we believe in the way we lift weights, and you can see there are strength gains, especially with our older players, more 400 pound bench press guys and more 500 pound squat guys right on down the line.
But, what we tried to concentrate on in the off season was conditioning and conditioning in the heat. We would condition in the middle of the day, during the summertime and things like that, or condition in training camp, maybe we would go into Holuba, and it would be hotter in there and we would condition in there. I do feel like our team is in decent condition and hopefully the conditioning improves throughout the year.
Q. What initially made you and the staff think that Stephen Obeng-Agaypong might make for a good option at linebacker and are you surprised how far he’s come given his performance on Saturday?
COACH O’BRIEN: Not surprised at all. We think he’s a very good football player, he’s instinctive, he played a lot of football for us last year, he was a key special teams member last year. He has decent size, a pretty big safety, which makes for a decent outside linebacker. He is a thick kid, so he can take on low blocks, and he has a thick upper body so he can take guys come into his grill a little bit, and he has good ball instincts. We need to keep devising ways to use him. He’s a very valuable member of our team.
Q. You mentioned that the ‘73 team will be honored this weekend. Are you the kind of coach that would have those guys come in and talk to the team at all or have them around practice?
COACH O’BRIEN: Oh, yeah, if they want to. There is an open invitation, anytime a 12 0 Penn State team is on campus, they have an open invitation to come give us advise over at the Lasch Building, I can tell you that. That’s a great football team. Anytime you go 12 0, that’s a fantastic accomplishment. They’re up on the stadium wall here and it will be great to have them back. Hopefully they can come around and watch practice.
Q. I’m wondering how your wife reacted to you calling Fitz every day on vacation?
COACH O’BRIEN: (Chuckles.) Sometimes I exaggerate. I don’t know if it was every day.
Q. I noticed Glenn Carson, your starting middle linebacker, was long snapping. Is there a concern about him doing too much?
COACH O’BRIEN: Yeah, sure, we have to continue to look at that. Being the first game in a big, new venue, pro football stadium, we wanted a guy in there that had been there before in that type of a game.
He’s one of our leaders, just a really dependable guy, and that’s Glenn. So going forward you will see different guys long snapping.
Q. How have you been able to enhance the offense from last year while still teaching Christian the basics?
COACH O’BRIEN: Yeah, no, we have, we have. Again, we have to do a better job of that. Christian is a smart guy. He’s a bright guy. To be able to - you’ve really got to think about it, you go into that game against a very tough defense. They’re a good defense and they threw a lot of stuff at him and to be able to handle it the way he did overall is pretty good. We, personally, me, I have to do a better job of the offense and let these guys play.
Q. What’s the balance? You did win the game and that’s the most important thing, but there were situations with the running and 1 for 16 (one third down). How do you balance that with the guys?
COACH O’BRIEN: I tell the guys….Monday we go through the film and I show mistakes that they made and I certainly show mistakes that I made. Nobody in this program makes more mistakes than me, and I tell the guys that. That’s important.
I have looked to try to improve every single day and I look to try to improve them every single day and, again, I’m just trying to go out there and do the best job I can for the team, along with our staff, but there is a two way street there. We don’t go into a meeting and say, “you, you, you,” it’s “us” all the way. Like you said, winning is the most important thing, and we won the football game. It’s like saltwater; it cures everything. And you’re from Pennsylvania so you don’t even know about saltwater, but I’m from the Cape (laughter).
I thought it was collectively a good team effort. We did a lot of different things, we quick kicked, went for it on fourth down twice. Although I will disclose there, the first time we went for it, I thought we got the first down on the previous play. It was like (John) Belushi in “Animal House” “just let him go,” like “when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor.” (laughter)
I learned early in my coaching career you shouldn’t go into halftime with all of your timeouts left, so we could have done something in the two minute drive there, but we had a lot of situations that came up in the game, and I felt like the guys handled them well and we need to make improvements every week.
Q. I think you guys took 16 freshmen on the road trip and it was 16 out of 72
COACH O’BRIEN: We brought 80 guys on the trip.
Q. What do you hope those young guys get out of that, the experience being on the road and what do they gain from that?
COACH O’BRIEN: You got it. You want to bring guys that deserve to go. Certain guys came that have roles, like Austin Whipple came on the trip because he was signaling, and then you have young guys that we felt deserved to go and would be future players for us this year or maybe this week or down the road, and it’s important for those guys to get used to getting on a plane and understanding the routine and how serious it is, and the meetings at the hotel, how you warm up before the game, how intense the locker room is, how alert you have to be during the game and how into the game you’ve got to be, because the “next man up” you have to know what’s going on, on the field and be ready to go in. So you take the players that deserve it and have a role on game day. That’s what we should do.
Q. Talk about Ty Howle and how he filled the role replacing Matt Stankiewitch and how he worked with Christian on Saturday?
COACH O’BRIEN: Ty is an important part of our football team…tough, smart, nasty guy on the football field and is an excellent player, too. Stank made it to the final cut of the New England Patriots, and you make it there, you’re doing something. He’s a heck of a football player and Ty came in and picked up where we left off at that position. He’s built low to the ground so he is he has technique and he’s a strong guy, dad is a high school coach down in North Carolina, good friend of mine and just a great guy.
Q. What makes him (Howle) a nasty guy on the field?
COACH O’BRIEN: You’d have to ask him. I just know what I see on the film.
Q. DaQuan Jones on Saturday, he had an excellent game. I was wondering in training camp could you visibly see a lot of improvement in him from last year and how so? I also wondered with (Jordan) Hill gone, do you think that he’s really kind of knew that he had more responsibility this year and embraced that?
COACH O’BRIEN: During the off season one of the things we talked about with him, myself and (defensive line coach) Larry Johnson was to lose weight. We felt like if he lost weight he would be quicker, more explosive because he could lose weight and gain strength and he did it. He went out and did it.
I feel like both myself and Larry, especially Larry, did a nice job with him in practice of limiting his reps, getting him good, quality reps so he would be fresh for the games and that showed up on Saturday.
But the guy it goes back to the individual. He’s a fantastic kid. You talk about a guy that’s overcome the odds in the classroom, overcome the odds on the football field, he’s a great kid to coach, one of the leaders of our football team and hopefully he continues to play well.
Q. The breaking news is Cory is from Arkansas.
COACH O’BRIEN: Is he? I didn’t know that, I thought he was from Altoona.
Q. We’ve adopted him.
COACH O’BRIEN: I’m sorry, I have a line there but I won’t use it.
Q. There was a famous coach who felt that a team made its biggest improvement from the first to the second game, and I wondered how you felt about that?
COACH O’BRIEN: I agree with that. I think over time that’s been proven out that you do…I just was thinking about this a lot today. In the NFL, you have four pre-season games and you can do those however you want. You can play your starters first half, three quarters, four quarters however you want to do it but by the end of four pre-season games you have a good idea about your team. In college you don’t have that. You have two or three scrimmages where you’re going against each other and you get a good feel but where you get a good feel is in that first game and if it’s a game against a quality opponent in a neutral site, with adverse conditions…it was hot! You guys were all there.
We can go to the film room and say, “this is what we need to do better, this is what you need to do to get better, and if we make those improvements we got a chance to improve each week,” and that’s what you’re trying to do, and that’s why you see that game one to two improvement, and hopefully you will see that this week.
Q. Bill, the general trend in college football and pro is about time of possession. Does that mean anything anymore? It seems as if the mentality has gone from withhold as long as possible to score as fast as possible!
COACH O’BRIEN: I don’t think you put as much stock in time of possession. I think it’s important depending on who you’re playing. If you’re playing the service academies, you better be concerned about time of possession because they’re going to possess the ball just based on the nature of their offense.
I think if you’re playing Oregon, or somebody that averages 50 points per game, you better be worried about scoring because chances are you’re going to have a tough time stopping them, nobody has. So I think it depends on the opponent you’re playing. We don’t look at time of possession, we look at scoring one more point, that’s the biggest thing.
Q. Given how Christian played the majority of the game on Saturday, is Tyler Ferguson still in the plans to get him action like you did on Saturday, or is Christian the guy?
COACH O’BRIEN: Christian is the starter and Tyler needs to be ready to play, but Christian is the starter.
Q. You mentioned special teams earlier. Could you talk more about Sam Ficken and where his confidence is as compared to last year?
COACH O’BRIEN: Obviously, he had a good day. He’s a confident guy and he’s a great guy, he’s fun to coach, really smart guy, really you know, he understands how to kick the ball and is able to coach himself in some ways. I know Robbie Gould, great kicker for the Chicago Bears, he’s a great friend of mine, and he’s helped him out a lot, and I think that’s helped a lot, and he’s an improved and much more confident kicker.
Q. Can you talk about Eastern Michigan and what you see from them coming into this week?
COACH O’BRIEN: Defensively they pose problems scheme-wise. They line-up in different fronts and coverages, and they’re going to pressure you. They play tough, they have some kids that can really run and you better be on your P’s and Q’s because they’re going to come after you. I think offensively it’s similar to what Syracuse was. You’re going to see spread gun run type things and schemes that try to take advantage of your schemes. Special teams is going to come in and play extremely hard and throw some stuff at us. We better be on our toes for all kinds of things in special teams. This is a game where we have to have a great week of practice and we’ve got to be ready to go.
We have a lot of respect for Eastern Michigan and I have a lot of respect for Coach English, they have guys that coached at the University of Michigan with Ron English and Stan Parrish, so we have a lot of respect for their team.
Q. Talk about Garry Gilliam and Adam Gress (RT) on the depth chart.
COACH O’BRIEN: It’s “OR,” I just wanted to see what it said. It’s “OR.” We will battle that out every week and they will both play a lot of football.
Q. And going off special teams you saw Von Walker and you singled him out a couple of times as a freshman that stood out. He took an interesting path to get here.
COACH O’BRIEN: We are happy…It’s rare, believe me, I hesitate to say this but I think it’s important because he’s only a freshman but - I’ve got to be careful how I say this because he’s not headed for the Heisman Trophy, but he is he’s come in here and he’s one of those freshmen that has been able to adapt quickly to the regime of meetings and the combination of having to lift weights, condition, practice, go to class. I know it’s only been a week but he seems to be ahead of the game on those things, and he’s gone out on the practice field and been competitive.
He has pretty good playing strength for a young guy right now and he can field the punt, he can catch, he has good ball skills, so his journey is interesting and he’s a fun guy to be around. I like tough, competitive kids and he’s one of those kids.
Q. Bill, how much is a balancing act between integrating new concepts for Christian and game planning toward things that he’s comfortable with and is there a timeline when it comes to getting him deeper into the play book?
COACH O’BRIEN: Great question. It goes back to what I said to Neil. You don’t have the luxury of seeing them. It’s the first time you’ve coached them in a game not the first time you’ve coached them but going from the Lasch practice fields to MetLife Stadium is a pretty big jump. So we’re figuring each other out. Now he knows what I’m like on game day and I know what he’s like. It’s going to be interesting going forward.
He’s a bright kid, he’s been able to pick up so many different things in our offense, so it’s more me doing a better job with him than him doing a better job, to be honest with you.
Q. You not only trusted Christian with your offense but you let him come out and talk to us afterwards. Why was that important that he do that?
COACH O’BRIEN: I think he’s a mature guy and I talked to him before he came out and talked to you. I mean, we try to work with them on those things because I know some of you guys are going to…no, I’m just kidding! (laughter)
Anyway, I think he’s mature, well-spoken, he’s bright, humble, he loves his teammates and he loves Penn State. Here is a guy, just like a lot of these guys in the freshman class that could have gone anywhere. He had scholarships to over 50 schools, and he committed to us before the sanctions came out, and he stuck with us when the sanctions came out. Down the road, no matter what happens in his career, 10 years down the road he’s all of these guys that did that, because there is more than just him, they’re better men for having done that.
I felt like after a game like that and just, “why wait?” He’s going to talk to you guys eventually anyway so it’s good to get ‘em out there after a win and let them see what that’s about. Kind of like shaving your head with a cheese grater is what I told him just kidding.
Q. You can do more with recruiting now (after Sept. 1). Have you changed anything in the evaluation process from anything that you did last year?
COACH O’BRIEN: Yeah, you’re allowed to do different things with run on candidates and things like that. No question. We will evaluate our recruiting process every single year, more than once during the year, too. I’m not going to get into the details of what we have changed but it’s evaluating your roster, figuring out what you need, who is out there that’s interested in you and, again, I go back, it’s about recruiting is about a fit, does that guy “fit” with your program? It’s not just about collecting talent; you’re trying to build a football team. So we will do different things every year.
Q. Tight end was considered by you guys to be one of the deepest position. Losing Matt Lehman, does that limit you or change how you do things?
COACH O’BRIEN: It doesn’t limit us. You go back to like you have to relate it to the roster in a pro football team, so you have 53 guys on the roster, right? So you bring two tight ends to the game or three to the game. If one or two of those guys go down, what are going to do, just play with nine guys or ten guys? No, it’s not about limiting, it’s about what personnel groups are we going to use now that we don’t have Matt Lehman? When you lose a good player, it’s not good for anybody but it is about the “next man up,” and that might be a receiver, a running back, another a guy that you move over from defense to do things for you.
You have to think out of the box. I don’t think it’s as much about limiting, it’s more about being able to think out of the box and put guys on the right spots.
Q. Bill, the Virginia game last year for Sam Ficken was a nightmare for him and the stuff he got on social media and Twitter after that. Were you worried about his ability to rebound mentally or his psyche after that game? He seems like he’s in a good place.
COACH O’BRIEN: He’s a calm guy and I noticed that about him right away. If you remember back to the circumstances of why he was the kicker, he was in somewhat of a position battle with Anthony Fera, who came out of the spring (2012) winning the battle and after the sanctions he decided to go to Texas, and Sam was kind of one of the first examples of next man up. He was our kicker. He was thrust into a tough situation and then in that game, starts with me. The Virginia game, I could have done a better job of putting him in better situations, maybe going for it in a couple of those fourth downs, but I put him out there and at the end of the day it was maybe one of the best things that happened to him. He went through that, took the criticism to heart. Obviously, that hurts when people that are anonymous go on this is why I hate Twitter.
I don’t know, I just you go on there and - “I brushed my teeth today!” Who cares? This is ridiculous! (laughter) But, anyways, I think he came through that with flying colors and he ended up absolutely helping us win games at the end of the year and now he’s picked up where he left off and hopefully he can continue to do it. It’s a fine line. He’s working extremely hard to do it, and we will be with him every step of the way.
Q. You complemented Stephen Obeng’s play at linebacker when he took a lot of snaps there on Saturday, but it was a situation where you had kind of a need. If there was a long term injury is there a chance that he could permanently move to linebacker, fill in, go into the depth chart as linebacker, or is he more of a safety and fills in when he can?
COACH O’BRIEN: He’s one of our guys who is a multi role guy. Yesterday he practiced with the linebackers, and today he will practice with the safeties, and tomorrow he’s going to practice with the fullbacks, and the next day he might practice with the tight ends, and Friday maybe special teams I’m being serious. We have a lot of guys like that. He’s a multi purpose guy, and he understands that and he will fill those roles admirably.
Q. How many multi purpose guys do you have like that?
COACH O’BRIEN: You will figure it out after the season how many guys are like that. Do you know what I mean?