Whatever problems that have emerged during Penn State’s first 11 days of training camp remain hidden, thanks to an increasingly confident coach.
Bill O’Brien continued his preseason display of bravado in a 21-minute conference call with reporters on Thursday.
Name an aspect of the Nittany Lions, and it’s likely O’Brien has some encouraging words about the group.
Even the defensive backfield. “I have been very pleased with the secondary, I have been pleased with the defense as a whole,” O’Brien said.
The secondary is replacing four starters, but already has a collection of players O’Brien categorized as “Steady Eddies.” The reliables include senior cornerback Stephon Morris, junior safety Malcolm Willis and sophomore utility man Adrian Amos.
Senior Jake Fagnano, who has a hamstring injury, junior safety Stephen Obeng-Agaypong, whom O’Brien considers a core special-teams player, and true freshmen Da’Quan Davis and Jordan Lucas, who are only teenagers, are also competing for immediate playing time.
“I’m happy with where those guys are at,” O’Brien said.
Ditto for some other unproven units. Sophomore Bill Belton has completed his metamorphosis from the leading candidate to replace departed 1,200-yard rusher Silas Redd to the Nittany Lions’ No. 1 tailback — never mind that Belton played wide receiver last year. Penn State’s scrimmages have been closed to fans and the media, but O’Brien said Belton busted an 80-yard touchdown run in a live session.
“He’s definitely cemented himself as a starter to this point,” O’Brien said. “Other guys will play, but Billy will start the game. He’s had a good camp.”
Matt McGloin remains the starting quarterback. The number of passing targets is growing as camp progresses. O’Brien said the Nittany Lions feature a “pretty good rotation of six or seven” wide receivers. The current headliner is sophomore Allen Robinson.
“Allen Robinson has had a really, really good camp to this point,” O’Brien said. “He will be a starter.”
McGloin’s other options include as many as five tight ends, with true freshman Jesse James and Brent Wilkerson joining redshirt freshman Kyle Carter, junior Garry Gilliam and junior Matt Lehman in the rotation.
The tight ends are creating a preseason buzz. But O’Brien said comparisons to New England Patriots rock-grabbers Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez must cease.
“The two tight ends we had in New England are two of the best players in the National Football League,” said O’Brien, the Patriots offensive coordinator last season. “We're not asking our tight ends at Penn State to be Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez. We're just trying to ask them to block well and understand route technique and understand their assignments. We have four or five guys there that can play. We feel good about the position.”
Injuries to Donovan Smith (hamstring) and Mark Arcidiacono (foot) are hampering the offensive line.
O’Brien beams over the phone when discussing Penn State’s defensive front. Starters are set at all seven positions — Jordan Hill, Pete Massaro, Sean Stanley and DaQuan Jones on the line and Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti and Glenn Carson at linebacker — and redshirt freshman defensive end Deion Barnes and sophomore linebackers Mike Hull and Ben Kline are among the young players pushing for playing time.
Sam Ficken and Emery Etter are on track to become the starting kicker and long snapper, respectively. O’Brien’s optimism temporarily fades when discussing the punting competition involving junior Alex Butterworth and redshirt freshman Matt Marcincin.
“The punting situation is still up in the air,” O’Brien said. “They really have to be a lot more consistent.”
Considering Penn State has lost 16 scholarship players since March, including 10 in the past three weeks, a murky punting situation seems tolerable.
Notes:Brendan Mahon and Garrett Sickels are on the U.S. Army All-American Bowl roster. Mahon, an offensive lineman, and Sickels, a defensive lineman, are both from New Jersey and reaffirmed their commitments to Penn State last month. The game is Jan. 5 in San Antonio. ... Former Penn State wide receiver Devon Smith has joined Derrick Thomas at Marshall. Smith and Thomas both left the Nittany Lions for personal reasons in June.
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy