Six new offensive coaches stormed into State College last winter toting blueprints for a schematic and philosophic overhaul.
“Offensive Makeover Penn State” started under a shaky foundation. The Nittany Lions scored less than 20 points in season-opening losses to Ohio University and Virginia.
Once the concrete solidified, the renovation ranked among the nation’s best, offering promise for glitzy new additions.
No aspect of Penn State’s football program received a bigger one-year boost from the coaching change than the offense. Penn State, according to the coaching industry website www.coachingsearch.com, was one of 20 teams to improve its scoring average by at least nine points per game.
The Nittany Lions averaged 29.1 points per game in Bill O’Brien’s first year as head coach and offensive coordinator. They averaged 19.3 in 2011.
After a slow start, which included multiple red-zone gaffes, Penn State developed a rhythm in Big Ten play, averaging 32.6 points against eight conference opponents. Only undefeated Ohio State (36.9) averaged more points in conference games.
The following is a chronological look at the evolution of Penn State’s 2012 offense:
• Jan. 6. O’Brien is hired as Joe Paterno’s permanent successor. O’Brien worked with the New England Patriots from 2007 until last year’s Super Bowl, joining the organization as an offensive assistant and rising to a coordinator position.
• Jan. 12. O’Brien hires four new offensive coaches: Stan Hixon (assistant head coach/wide receivers), Mac McWhorter (offensive line), Charles London (running backs) and John Strollo (tight ends). Hixon and London leave NFL jobs to join the staff. McWhorter, who worked at Texas from 2002-10, leaves retirement.
• Feb. 18. O’Brien hires Char
lie Fisher as quarterbacks coach. Fisher, a central Pennsylvania native, is the final coach to join the staff. Fisher worked with Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler during a stint at Vanderbilt.
• March 26. Penn State opens spring drills. The 15 practices allow the staff to install a pro-style offensive feature various three-receiver and two-tight end sets. Players describe the playbook as thick and complex.
• April 21. The defense edges the offense 77-65 in the Blue-White Game. O’Brien says he reveals 10 percent of the playbook in the scrimmage. The three-way quarterback competition involving senior Matt McGloin, junior Rob Bolden and sophomore Paul Jones remains open.
• June 1. O’Brien officially names McGloin, a fifth-year senior from Scranton, as the starting quarterback. Jones is second on the depth followed by Bolden.
• July 31 and Aug. 4. Penn State’s loses 1,000-yard rusher Silas Redd and leading returning wide receiver Justin Brown in the immediate aftermath of major NCAA sanctions levied against the school. The duo transfers to Southern California and Oklahoma, respectively. They are eligible to begin playing immediately at their new schools.
• Aug. 6. Preseason camp opens with a 6:15 a.m. practice. The workout gives the staff its first chance to coach the 10 scholarship offensive players in the 2012 recruiting class.
• Sept. 1. Penn State begins the season with new starters at 9 of 11 offensive positions. Senior Mike Farrell, junior John Urschel, sophomore Miles Dieffenbach and freshman Donovan Smith join returning center Matt Stankiewitch on the line. Bill Belton and Michael Zordich start behind McGloin in the backfield, Garry Gilliam opens the year at tight end and Allen Robinson and Shawney Kersey are the starting receivers.
• Sept. 22. The offense begins to accelerate as Penn State unveils its up-tempo “NASCAR” package multiple times in a 24-13 victory over Temple. McGloin collects his first of four 300-yard passing games. Penn State starts two tight ends — Gilliam and true freshman Jesse James — for the first time under O’Brien.
• Oct. 13. Using 22 fourth-quarter points, the Nittany Lions rally to defeat Northwestern. Penn State runs 99 offensive plays, tying a school record set in 1966.
• Oct. 27. A bye week doesn’t slow the Nittany Lions as they accumulate 504 yards to hammer pestering nemesis Iowa 38-14. McGloin completes passes to nine different players.
• Nov. 17. McGloin passes for a career-high 395 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-22 victory over Indiana. Robinson catches a career-high 10 passes for 197 yards and three touchdowns and fellow sophomore Zach Zwinak rushes for 135 yards.
• Nov. 24. The season ends with a 24-21 overtime victory over Wisconsin in a traditional Big Ten slugfest. Zwinak batters the Badgers for 179 yards on 36 carries.
Makeovers aren’t glitch-free. For the most part, Penn State’s remained hidden.
“It wasn’t easy early on,” McGloin said. “At times, it was difficult to even say a play call in the huddle. It was just constant communication and constant practice, just doing the little things at home, sitting at home, reading about the plays and coverages, going over formations and routes with linemen and wideouts.”
McGloin said he started feeling comfortable with the offense “toward the end of spring.” Other players start grasping concepts around the same time.
“Going into any new offense, there are always doubts and you’re skeptical,” Stankiewitch said. “But we just believed in what Coach O’Brien was bringing to the table. He’s very knowledgeable about offense. What we do is very simple, and you’re like, ‘I can’t believe I never thought of that before.’ It’s easy to pick up once you take reps at it.”
O’Brien said this year’s offense exceeded his expectations.
“I just wasn’t sure,” he said. “I knew this was a difficult offense to learn. It’s difficult for an NFL rookie or NFL veteran to learn. These guys worked at it. It takes hard work, and they put the time in.”
McGloin, Stankiewitch and Farrell will miss the next phase of Penn State’s offensive evolution. But plenty of parts from the initial makeover return.
“I think we can definitely bring a lot more offense,” said Robinson, the second player in school history to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards in a season. “We had a lot of production this year with passing and running the ball. As coach introduces more to us, I think we will be that much more productive.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.