UNIVERSITY PARK — Football anyone?
They still play that violent, yet intriguing, sport at Penn State. In fact, the men associated with the school’s football program are bracing for the day when wins, and losses, matter again.
If you listen to coach Bill O’Brien, who participated in his first preseason media day Thursday at Beaver Stadium, none of the recent turmoil has softened the program.
“Winning is hugely important,” O’Brien sternly said in a response to a question whether wins and losses mean less this year. “Will we win at all costs? No, that’s not what I’m saying. Every time you step into a drill, every time you step onto a practice field in a competitive situation, every time you step on this field, your goal is to win. We will never accept losing at Penn State.”
The process of cultivating a winning attitude in the NCAA sanctions era started earlier this week when the Nittany Lions opened preseason camp. The offensive pieces are different than what many envisioned, turning some young players into instant competitors for positions.
Running back Silas Redd and wide receiver Justin Brown fled to national title contenders Southern California and Oklahoma, respectively, last week. The defections have added another phrase to O’Brien’s growing list of go-to musings: “Next man up.”
Up next at tailback is Bill Belton, a sophomore who played wide receiver last season. Up next at wide receiver are sophomores Allen Robinson and Alex Kenney.
“At the end of the day, if Silas was here, Bill was going to play,” Robinson said. “If J.B. was here, I was still going to play, so I think we definitely made the adjustments as soon as those guys left, and we had to. We can’t dwell on the past because those guys aren’t here anymore. We have to move on as a whole team and look for other people to contribute.”
Penn State has 25 more practices and 22 days to prepare for the Sept. 1 opener against Mid-American Conference preseason favorite Ohio University. O’Brien is acting like a salesman pitching a new style of back-to-school shoes.
He’s confident his brand will appeal to the masses.
“We expect to go out every single game and put a good product on the field,” he said.
The unwavering confidence filters to his players.
“We have a lot of good players,” sophomore defensive back Adrian Amos said. “You’ll see Sept. 1 who is going to step up.”
O’Brien said no part of his team, including a thin secondary, keeps him awake at night. The secondary is replacing four starters, and the unit features just five returning players who enrolled at Penn State after receiving athletic scholarships out of high school.
“We’ve got some depth issues there, which we had going into the season or before the NCAA sanctions,” O’Brien said.
True freshmen Da’Quan Davis, Jordan Lucas and Jake Kiley started practicing with the veterans on Tuesday. Davis is competing at cornerback; O’Brien said Kiley is playing safety; Lucas is working at both positions.
Depth concerns create a delicate training camp balance. Competition is promoted at a cautious pace. The program has lost 15 scholarship players since March, so a serious injury could cripple an entire unit. Senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill and senior strong safety Jacob Fagnano were held out of the open portion of Thursday’s practice for precautionary reasons.
Two-a-days begin Saturday. O’Brien, who spent five seasons with the New England Patriots, wants players to adapt to an NFL-like preseason.
“We’re keeping a good tab on our team and making sure that we’re not overworking them,” O’Brien said.
The camp represents the staff’s first opportunity to work with players since the Blue-White Game. The team O’Brien watched on April 21 contrasts the one he’s observed the past four days.
“We had a good staff meeting (Thursday morning),” O’Brien said. “We talked about the fact that these guys are much farther ahead than they were at the end of spring practice just with the terminology and understanding what we’re trying to do.”
And after four days of practice, O’Brien even made a slight football prediction.
“I wouldn’t expect 35, 40 points a game,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect the 2007 New England Patriots. I would expect a good, tough football team that plays good on defense, good on special teams and is able to score some points on offense.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.com.