Penn State football: Nittany Lions work on evolving defense

tjohnson@centredaily.comMay 8, 2013 

— The start of Penn State’s preseason football camp is months away, and Bill O’Brien is now experiencing what the NCAA recruiting rulebook calls a “dead period.”

And although the Penn State coach can’t return to the recruiting trail until June, his mind has no restrictions in place against football-related thoughts. O’Brien talked xs and os during a Coaches Caravan stop at the Pennsylvania College of Technology on Tuesday and used the opportunity to address his defensive philosophy.

O’Brien, a offensive mind who has spent his career working on the proactive side of the football, took an offensive approach.

“I bring an offensive perspective to it, so the hardest defenses that I’ve ever called plays against were defenses that were very multiple,” O’Brien said.

“Multiple.” It was a word used frequently by former Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who left shortly after last season to take the same position at Georgia Tech. It has been tossed around by Roof’s successor, John Butler, too.

While it is unlikely the Nittany Lions will employ every defensive scheme O’Brien rattled off on Tuesday — personnel limitations kept them from using a nickel defense last season — they have already expanded the defensive playbook.

Butler, the Nittany Lions’ secondary coach last season, used the most recent spring sessions to introduce the nickel and dime packages. Those extra defensive groupings should help Penn State improve its pass defense that was ranked eighth in the Big Ten last season.

“I think it’s every day I learn some things,” Butler said following the Blue White game. “Now, I’m not looking at just the secondary. Now I’m looking at the whole picture and I’ve got to make calls based on what’s best for the whole group.”

O’Brien hinted how the interplay between he and Butler could play out. Basing his approach on his own experiences as a play-caller, O’Brien said he’ll likely spend Sundays and portions of Mondays watching the upcoming opponent’s offense. He’ll make note of the opposing team’s greatest threats, four or five of them, and go over them with the team and his staff.

“I’ll stand up in front of the football team and tell them, ‘Look, these are the keys to the game on offense, defense and special teams and that’s basically what I do and I coach the offense,” O’Brien said.

Then it’ll be up to Butler, as it was Roof, to construct a defensive game plan. One sticking point with O’Brien — and virtually every football coach — any defense Penn State fields must be able to stop the run he said.

“This is the defense not that John Butler wants to run. This is the defense Bill O’Brien wants,” Butler said. “So we’re putting that together because we believe in all the same things.”

Penn State finished fifth in the Big Ten last season in rush defense.

“Being able to adjust during a game is huge,” O’Brien said. “Being able to stop the run like I said and then obviously being a multiple defense is really important. You can’t just sit in one coverage and one front all day, you’re going to get abused.”

Premium on two-ways

His experience in the NFL — where teams are limited to 53-man rosters and 45 on game days — helped O’Brien realize how valuable players who could play both ways were.

His experience thus far with his team’s scholarship reduction to 65 has helped O’Brien he may be relying on similar value players again.

“You’ve got to take a certain percentage of that (collegiate) roster and I can’t mention names right now but guys that we’ve been recruiting since when we arrived here,” O’Brien said. “Can these guys do anything on the other side of the ball?”

Seldom do professionals play both ways in the NFL but when O’Brien was in New England the Patriots often relied on Julian Edelman to do so. Edelman, primarily a wide receiver, also played nickel back, too.

The Nittany Lions have already implemented the same strategy with two players. Both Malik Golden and Trevor Williams played defensive back in the spring after spending last season as wide receivers.

“And there were other guys that played two ways at practice but never got on the field, so I definitely see that for us going forward,” O’Brien said.

Belichick maybe, Brady no way

Josh McDaniels, the Patriots offensive coordinator, visited Penn State’s coaches clinic in March as a guest speaker. O’Brien said he’d eventually like to welcome more of his former New England colleagues to State College in the future.

“Obviously Coach (Bill) Belichick is a great friend and somebody who I really respect and look up to so hopefully, eventually we’ll bring him in to speak to our team and maybe even speak to our high school coaches association and things like that.”

Belichick spoke at Notre Dame’s coaches clinic in April and could be a future guest. Tom Brady? O’Brien isn’t so sure the former Michigan Wolverines quarterback would make the trip.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get Tom Brady to speak to our team here,” O’Brien said. “He’s a Michigan guy, so that’d be a tough sell.”

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