UNIVERSITY PARK — Bill O'Brien spent just more than 15 and a half minutes clearing the air.
Once he had reaffirmed his commitment to continue as Penn State's head coach in the wake of recent interest expressed by NFL teams in his services, O'Brien got to a more pressing matters as they pertain to him professionally and personally.
More specifically - a looming battle for the Nittany Lions' open quarterback spot, new incoming personnel, on-field formations, strategies and recruiting.
Following Penn State's season finale against Wisconsin, O'Brien conducted exit interviews with all of his players. It gave O'Brien the chance to get to know even more of his players away from the field.
With more than 100 players on the roster and having spent less than nine months around most of them, O'Brien relished the interview process and the chance it gave him to learn more about his players, their studies and hobbies.
Most of those returning expressed similar football-related outlooks.
"I was able to hear from them, again, how confident they are in their ability when spring practice starts again to know the system when they hit the ground running in spring practice," O'Brien said.
The Nittany Lions return 10 players on offense and 10 more on the defensive side of the ball who played a large number of snaps in nearly every game during last season's 8-4 run. While NCAA sanctions will limit the team's recruiting ability in the future, Penn State remains a young, but experienced team that is deep at multiple, key position groups.
"There's a lot of good young talent in this program that we think bodes well for the future and we just can't wait to get out there and start coaching," O'Brien said.
Penn State’s quarterback position is vacant and the jockeying to fill Matt McGloin's shoes will soon heat up.
With sophomore Steven Bench as the lone quarterback on the roster at the regular season's conclusion, Penn State signed junior college quarterback Tyler Ferguson and brought in two run-on players to compete for the job.
Bench played sparingly behind McGloin. He appeared in two games and completed two of eight passes for 12 yards. O’Brien has been around Bench long enough to realize his knack for catching on. The 6-foot-2, 204-pound Bench grew up in Cairo, Ga., the son of a high school football coach with over 35 years of experience.
"(He's) just a great kid, a bright kid, competitive guy, a lot of energy, really a neat kid to be around," O'Brien said.
"He'll be the first to tell you, he's got a lot of work to do but really looking forward to working with him when spring practice starts," O'Brien said.
Bench will have Ferguson pushing him, trying to win the job as well.
Listed at 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, Ferguson threw for over 2,600 yards and 26 touchdowns last season at Visalia, Calif.'s College of the Sequoias.
"He was a guy that we felt really was smart and productive and had some great conversations with him," O'Brien said.
Ferguson was one of seven early enrollees to arrive on campus in time for Monday's first classes. Two more are run-on quarterbacks Austin Whipple and D.J. Crook. Whipple, the son of Cleveland Browns quarterback coach Mark Whipple, and Crook who played last season at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, will provide depth and could challenge for the spot in an open competition.
Highly regarded recruit Christian Hackenberg could join the battle in training camp.<
The other new guys
Rounding out Penn State's list of early enrollees are tight end Adam Breneman, defensive backs Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith and running back Richy Anderson.
While Penn State is deep at numerous positions, most notably tight end and wide receiver, the Lions could benefit from having a few extra defensive backs around early. Like last season, Penn State will head into its 2013 season with little experience behind starters Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, Malcolm Willis and Adrian Amos in the backfield.
Breneman, formerly one of the most coveted recruits in the country, has been credited with helping keep the current recruiting class together despite the NCAA’s sanctions. He is coming off a torn ACL that happened before the high school season.
"They're guys that we just really want them to get off on the right foot academically," O'Brien said of the early enrollees. "That's the big thing. So that's what their goal is right now."
Who's in, who's out?
O'Brien was unsure whether or not sophomore tight end Kyle Carter will be ready for spring practice as he continues to recover from a serious wrist injury.
Carter starred as one of many breakout players in O'Brien's offense at tight end last season. He was on pace to break numerous Penn State single-season receiving records by a tight end. He hauled in 36 catches for 453 yards and two touchdowns before he was injured against Nebraska on Nov. 10.
"I just saw Kyle (Monday) morning and saw where he was getting a new cast on his arm there, his wrist and he's really working at it," O'Brien said. "He can't wait to get back at it. I don't know as we sit here right now if he'll be ready for spring practice."
The Lions will be without running back Curtis Dukes when practice begins. O'Brien didn't elaborate on why Dukes, who was academically ineligible last spring, won't be with the team. Meanwhile, another running back has caught O'Brien's eye.
Junior Bill Belton, who missed large portions last season with recurring ailments, has made noticeable progress over just the holiday period, O'Brien said.
"You can tell that he went home over Christmas and he really worked, and that's a good sign," O'Brien said. "He's a great kid, I really have a unique relationship with Billy."
O'Brien's early challenge for himself will be to come up with different ways to use the stout but shifty Belton who carried the ball just 60 times for 268 yards last season. O'Brien hinted that Penn State fans could see more of Belton as a receiver out of the backfield.
"I'm looking forward to putting those plans into place here in spring practice, but Billy's ready to go, I think as far as working at it this offseason."