UNIVERSITY PARK — When Penn State players first attempted to pick up Bill O’Brien’s offense last spring, most of them were in awe of the complexity and variety of O’Brien’s schemes.
With a full season and offseason to soak everything in, Penn State players still have plenty to learn. And as O’Brien puts it, this week is a critical one which will set the stage for Penn State’s summer workouts, training camp and eventually, O’Brien’s second regular season at the helm.
Shortly before the Nittany Lions began spring practice No. 10 of on Wednesday, O’Brien revealed he and his assistants have added plenty to the playbook, including a true nickel defense.
“We have to get many things nailed down and we already started on Monday,” O’Brien said. “Positionally, we need to make progress at all the positions, especially the quarterback. We have to get some scheme things down and we’ve added quite a bit to our packages on both sides of the ball and on special teams.”
Due to a lack of depth in the secondary last season, the Nittany Lions didn’t use a nickel defense. Instead of bringing in a fifth defensive back during passing downs, Penn State inserted Mike Hull as a coverage linebacker, moved cornerback Adrian Amos to safety and slotted Da’Quan Davis in at Amos’ corner spot.
That personnel grouping, coupled with the speed and coverage abilities of departed linebacker Gerald Hodges, was adequate most of the time.
But while Penn State ranked sixth in the Big Ten in total defense, the Nittany Lions wound up 10th in passing defense. Penn State surrendered an average of 233.5 yards per game to opposing quarterbacks and gave up 10 passing touchdowns last season.
O’Brien, who’s spent the majority of his career coaching in the NFL where defending the pass has become more crucial over the last few seasons, said the lack of a true nickel didn’t hurt Penn State as much against teams that didn’t use many multiple wide receiver formations.
In the NFL however, those formations break huddles the majority of the time. It was the same case in the season opener last year. Then, against Ohio, the Bobcats shredded Penn State for 324 yards through the air with their pro-style, spread attack that featured varied wideout sets.
“I think in the Big Ten, Gerald Hodges was our space linebacker, he was as good as a lot of nickel DBs,” O’Brien said. “Anytime a team goes to a three-wide receiver grouping or four-wide receiver groupings you’d like to have a little bit more speed on the field and maybe we have the ability to do that this year.”
Now the nickel will give Penn State’s already-multiple defense a more varied look. Meanwhile, a few new faces are expected to slot in at additional defensive back spots.
Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden have impressed their coaches enough with their abilities to transition to the secondary and have alternated in as the team’s nickelbacks so far this spring. Davis has played corner while Amos has subbed in at all three spots — corner, safety and nickelback — this spring.
“It’ll definitely be a benefit,” Hull said. “Last year, early in the year we weren’t getting off the field on third downs and that was part of the reason why we lost those first games. This year, we’ll have that extra d-back in there and it will help us get off the field.”
On the other side of the ball, O’Brien is hoping additional offensive packages will help Penn State keep its attack on the field.
“We’ve definitely added more to our language and I think the quarterbacks have adapted well,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s all about how hard they work at learning it and how good of a job you do of teaching it.”
And how well players who have a year studying the system under their belts can help ease their transition.
The Nittany Lions are breaking in two new quarterbacks as sophomores Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson dual for the starting job. Bench played sparingly behind Matt McGloin last season while Ferguson played at College of the Sequoias, a junior college in California. Incoming prospect Christian Hackenberg will join the quarterback battle this summer.
“Many of the guys that they’re playing with have been in the system,” O’Brien said. “It’s a little bit different from last year when everybody was new. So these (quarterbacks) have had to catch up to these veteran guys and I think they’ve done a good job.”
Penn State’s roster is loaded with experience combined with new talent at the skill positions. Multiple returning tight ends — Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman and Jesse James who combined to catch 75 passes for 1,025 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012 — will join talented newcomers Brent Wilkerson and Adam Breneman to form a vaunted tight end corps.
As a result, multiple new tight end packages also await Penn State’s opponents.
“We have an embarrassment of riches at tight end,” Carter said. “They’re definitely expanding it for us, getting more of us on the field and getting us in different positions so it’s definitely exciting at practice and I’m excited for this year and what we can all do.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @traviswjohnson_