The uncertainties that swirled around the Penn State football team before last season’s Blue-White game have cleared. The questions regarding the future of the program have nearly been answered.
Players believe they’re in good hands and they can relax to a degree. After all, last season they were admittedly on edge, trying to show an unfamiliar face in then-newly hired Bill O’Brien what each one of them brought to the table. Now they know what to expect from O’Brien and he knows what to expect from them.
“(I’m) definitely more comfortable. I don’t know if I was ever confident,” O’Brien said earlier this spring. “I understand the players better. I believe they understand us better. The staff really understands how we work, how long we meet, when to meet, all those different things, what our expectations are as a staff of each other and of the players.”
The fiery coach who made his way to Happy Valley from New England helped guide a the program through one of the most challenging periods in recent college football history. There was the tragic Sandusky scandal and resultant, constant media circus, the death of former iconic coach Joe Paterno and then came the heaviest NCAA sanctions ever handed out. Numerous players lost faith or believed they would get a better shot elsewhere. Those players left.
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The ones that held on? They started slow but finished purposefully, going 8-4 and winning eight of their last 10 games.
“I think we shocked a lot of people last season,” senior tackle Adam Gress said.
Now, Penn State players can singularly focus on football-related issues. While part of the sanctions that allows players to transfer up until the start of training camp, all players asked this spring have just shrugged off the prospect of any of their teammates leaving again.
As Gress said, players want to play for O’Brien. The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator has overhauled much of the program, installed a new, pro-style offense, encouraged attendance of NFL scouts inside the Lasch Building and for the most part, kept a crucial recruiting class that included vaunted quarterback and tight end recruits together last summer.
“He’s a class act individual the way he goes about everything on the field and in the community and I hope to be the man he is someday,” senior offensive lineman Eric Shrive said.And O’Brien has endeared himself to the Penn State community in one year. Of course, winning multiple coach of the year awards will help that strategy, but being out and about town is the key, he said.
O’Brien was a frequent spectator at Penn State wrestling matches where he usually sat in the bleachers with fans. He also attended basketball games, too.
“I think that I owe a lot to my wife, Colleen. She’s done a great job of getting acclimated to the area. I think she’s made a lot of friends. The kids have made a lot of friends. They really enjoy it here,” O’Brien said. “We love going to those sporting events, especially my son, Michael and I go to the wrestling matches and basketball games.”
On Saturday, O’Brien will spend his time at Beaver Stadium along the sideline. He’ll oversee a quarterback competition in addition to other position battles that likely won’t fully shake out until summer training camps.
Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson are currently competing to start at quarterback while the team still must find a fullback replacement for Michael Zordich, a host of new faces along the defensive line and secondary.
With a handful of practices left last week, O’Brien said there was still time for either Bench, a sophomore who backed up Matt McGloin last season, and Ferguson, a sophomore who transferred from College of the Sequoias, a junior college in Calif., to separate themselves from the other.
So far, Bench and Ferguson have received an equal number of repetitions with the first team offense and will both see plenty of time behind starting center Ty Howle in the intrasquad scrimmage.
“I think they’ve both had their good moments and their bad moments,” O’Brien said. “I don’t really like to get into all the compare and contrast. I think they both do some things well and there’s some things that both of them need to improve upon.”
The offensive line has an opening that needs to be filled, too and O’Brien has focused his efforts on finding dependable special-teamers to this point. While Howle takes over at center for Matt Stankiewitch, the right tackle spot is now up for grabs following Mike Farrell’s graduation. Adam Gress, Eric Shrive or Garry Gilliam have battled for the spot so far.
Linebacker depth has continued to be a positional group O’Brien is seeking to address. While returners Mike Hull and Glenn Carson will see the most action with Carson in the middle, redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman has seemingly locked up the third linebacker spot.
As for who will back them up? Redshirt freshman Gary Wooten has wowed teammates thus far and Ben Kline is highly regarded by the coaching staff. Kline is not participating in spring workouts and will not play in the Blue-White game however as recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.
“He’s making all the right checks and getting everyone lined up up front, that front seven,” senior safety Malcolm Willis said of Wartman. “And Gary Wooten, he’s grown as well. He’s just flying around to the ball trying to make as many plays as he can. There’s room for improvement with every guy and they’ve definitely embraced it.”
Replacing a leader like Zordich isn’t easy but Penn State has rotated senior Pat Zerbe and redshirt freshman Dominic Salomone in at fullback while sophomores Da’Quan Davis, Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams have alternated at one of the starting cornerback spot vacated by Stephon Morris.
As for the defensive line, Penn State has to replace two former mainstays in Jordan Hill and James Terry who combined for 77 tackles, 9 1/2 for losses and 5 1/2 sacks last season. Senior DaQuan Jones seeming has a lock on one of the tackle spots having played in all 12 games last season. He’s looking forward to seeing who steps up, be it junior Kyle Baublitz or redshirt freshmen Derek Dowrey, Brian Gaia or Austin Johnson.
It’s these position battles that make the Blue-White game meaningful for players. Also, with the offense vs. defense format, Jones said bragging rights are also up for grabs.
“We take it seriously because we never like losing to the offense,” Jones said. “I know personally, there’s a little competition between the d-line and o-line, we tell them every time, ‘You’re not running the ball.’ So our emphasis in this game is really just stopping the run and that’s what we’re looking forward to.”