Coach Bill O’Brien and defensive end Deion Barnes didn’t need time to ease into major roles at Penn State.
They were ready to perform from the start.
The fast-rising duo continued Penn State’s peppering of the Big Ten awards as O’Brien became the consensus Coach of the Year and Barnes received Freshman of the Year award Tuesday night.
O’Brien swept the media and coaches vote less than 11 months after becoming Joe Paterno’s permanent successor. His first season ended with the Nittany Lions finishing 8-4 despite major NCAA sanctions.
He won the award over Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, who guided the Buckeyes to a 12-0 record in his first season. Penn State and Ohio State’s seasons ended last week because of NCAA-mandated postseason bans.
“It’s obviously very humbling,” O’Brien said. “There are two groups of people that you have to talk about when it comes to coach of the year awards. It’s our coaching staff and our group of players. You can’t say enough about what our coaches did in helping keeping this thing moving forward and what our players did on the field.
“We weren’t an undefeated team. But we had kids that played tough, hard football all year. It was fun to coach them.”
The Nittany Lions started 0-2 yet recovered to win eight of their final 10 games to reach eight victories for the seventh time in the last eight years. O’Brien’s first season ended with a dramatic 24-21 overtime victory over Wisconsin last weekend.
O’Brien is the only coach in Penn State history to win eight games in his first season. Dick Harlow held the school’s previous first-year wins total, producing a 7-2 record in 1915.
No Penn State coach ever faced the challenge O’Brien encountered this season. The sanctions were announced July 23 and included a transfer waiver allowing players to switch schools and immediately play elsewhere without having to sit out a season.
Penn State lost 12 scholarship players in the aftermath of the sanctions. Eight of those players, including star running back Silas Redd, senior wide receiver Justin Brown and kicker/punter Anthony Fera, left before the season started.
O’Brien, the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator last season, overhauled Penn State’s offense after his hiring last January. Behind a pro-style attack, the Nittany Lions averaged 29.1 points per game, which is nearly 10 points more than last year’s average. Penn State averaged 32.6 points per game in Big Ten play. Only Ohio State (36.9) scored more against conference opponents.
Penn State’s defense also remained solid under O’Brien. He made a critical decision by retaining linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden and defensive line coach Larry Johnson. The duo meshed with new defensive coordinator Ted Roof and secondary coach John Butler to produce a unit that held opponents to 19.1 points per game.
Barnes represented one of the stars of Penn State’s defense. The redshirt freshman from Philadelphia led the Nittany Lions with six sacks and 10 tackles for losses. His rise was a quick one. He entered preseason camp competing with seniors Sean Stanley and Pete Massaro, sophomores C.J. Olaniyan and Brad Bars and redshirt freshman Anthony Zettel for snaps at defensive end.
Barnes said Stanley’s presence aided his development this season. Stanley ended the season with 9.5 tackles for losses.
“I always looked up to Sean Stanley,” Barnes said in a Big Ten Network interview. “He’s one of the smartest and best guys to talk to on the team. He’s a senior. I always looked up to him and Jordan Hill. But Sean Stanley, I looked to him the most. He understood what I have been going through.”
Barnes joins former running back Curtis Enis as the second Penn State player to win the freshman of the year award. Enis won the award in 1995.
“It’s a great honor, “Barnes said. “I feel good right now to be recognized for the freshman of the year. It feels great right now.”
O’Brien dominated news cycles throughout Tuesday. Earlier in the day, he told 790 AM “The Zone” in Atlanta that he planned on returning to Penn State in 2013. O’Brien, a potential candidate for looming NFL head coaching vacancies, hinted he was returning to Penn State in his news conference following last Saturday’s game. He’s scheduled to make recruiting visits beginning today.
O’Brien agreed to a five-year contract upon his hiring last January. He received a four-year extension after the sanctions were announced last July.
The combination of a $950,000 base salary, $1 million media deal and $350,00 apparel contract bring the annual value of his contract to $2.3 million. The version of his contract posted online by Penn State includes no performance bonuses for conference or national coach of the year awards. The contract includes bonuses for winning the Leaders Division and reaching Big Ten title, bowl and BCS championship games.
Penn State’s postseason ban lasts four years, which prevents O’Brien from earning three of the four performance bonuses. O’Brien’s agent Joe Linta told ESPN that he hopes to reopen negotiations for the bowl bonuses. O’Brien receives 11 percent of his base salary if Penn State qualifies for a bowl game.
Notes: Senior quarterback Matt McGloin was named a finalist for Burlsworth Trophy honoring the nation’s top player who started his career as a walk-on. Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs and San Jose State tackle David Quessenberry are the other finalists. The winner will be announced at a ceremony next Monday in Springdale, Ark. ... Paterno was named Big Ten Coach of the Year three times: 1994, 2005 and 2008.
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.