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How Penn State's Bill O’Brien Hopes to Build a BCS-Caliber Team with an FCS-Sized Roster

by on August 18, 2013 8:00 PM

The last two people to hit the practice fields for Penn State on Friday, in the crisp and clear air of a mid-August morning in Happy Valley, were head coach Bill O’Brien and All-American wide receiver candidate Allen Robinson.

O’Brien walked south to join the players already stretching on the artificial turf field, while Robinson headed north -- off to work on a practice field of his very own.

Their directions symbolized the direction that Penn State football is headed in 2013, and the delicate balance of time, talent and transcendent NCAA sanctions that O’Brien must manage every day.

Even with an ace like A-Rob, O’Brien is playing FBS poker with a hand that is increasingly FCS. And that’s no bluff. With the last of the NCAA sanctions not officially off the books until 2018, this is only the beginning of the new paradigm that is Penn State football.

It is a delicate thing that O’Brien is putting together. Maybe not quite a house of cards, but it is akin to constructing origami out of tissue paper – quite complicated, with the potential for amazing results. But there’s also the real, constant possibility of a rip, a tear, a crumble that could ruin the whole structure.

O’Brien’s 65 scholarship athletes puts his roster in sort of a no-man's land of college football. He has some of the best players in college football – Robinson, defensive tackle Da’Quan Jones, tight end Kyle Carter, fullback Zach Zwinak, defensive end Deion Barnes, linebacker Glenn Carson and guard John Urschel are all on national award “watch lists.” O’Brien just doesn’t have a lot of them.

In many ways, Penn State is now entering a twilight zone that is as much FSC (the old Division I-AA) as FBS (the level of major college teams competing in the Football Bowl Subdivision). Put another way, Penn State can now basically give the same number of scholarships as Alabama State (63) but not Alabama (85). Alabama State may have it better; scholarships at FCS schools can be full or partial rides. Those 63 FSC grants can be divided up in any way, but no more than 85 players can be put on scholarship. (Penn State, like Alabama, cannot split its scholarships into pieces.)


It was Practice No. 14 of the 2013 preseason for the Nittany Lions. No. 15 would come later that day. It marked the exact midpoint of the summer training camp.

At 9:51 a.m., Robinson jogged from the doors adjacent to the Penn State weight room and headed stage right straight into the cool, shaded and empty confines of Holuba Hall, the Nittany Lions’ indoor training facility. He was accompanied by a manager, who carried a running harness as the pair stealthfully jogged toward Holuba.

Unlike his teammates gathering at the opposite end of the practice fields for a group stretch, Robinson wasn’t in pads or a helmet. He wore blue shorts and a blue T-shirt, which highlighted a chiseled upper torso and frame that, at 210 pounds, is nearly a dozen pounds more than last spring.

The official word, as reported by most media outlets, was that Robinson was getting treatment for a minor hamstring ailment and had missed practice. In reality, what Robinson was doing in Holuba was getting in some low-key running, with a harness and then with some cones. He caught 10-yard bullets from a football pitching machine.

Robinson was also staying out of the sun, out of the limelight, out of the hitting. Active rest. No doubt, it was a mental break of sorts for Robinson as well. O’Brien knows what A-Rob can do – 77 receptions, 1,013 yards, 11 TD catches in 2012. The coach also knows that while Robinson may be a big key to beating Ohio State in 71 days, he’s not going to beat the Buckeyes if he is out with an injury.

The same thinking led O’Brien to sideline Barnes and Adrian Amos, two defensive cornerstones, for the a.m. practice. Same goes for key offensive linemen Adam Gress and Andrew Nelson. They were in shorts and T-shirts, nothing more. Holding a player out of a practice is nothing new. It’s just that at Penn State, as the depth chart thins and the sanction plot thickens, it’s more critical than ever.

“We try to be creative every single day to make sure our team is as healthy as possible for Syracuse,” O’Brien said.


At 9:53 a.m., as his squad lined up for a stretching session, O’Brien exited the southern doors of the Lasch Building, headed by large block letters reading “PENN STATE FOOTBALL,” and hurried onto the field.

O’Brien was up in his office, looking at his cards dealt for that day, to the very last minute. To gain any sort of edge, he has to maximize his pre-practice time – perhaps finalizing the schedule for the day’s second workout, or attending to matters regarding marketing, personnel, academics, NCAA rules. Or, maybe, all of the above.

While O’Brien has seen five NFL seasons with smaller rosters and directed Penn State through a 2012 season fraught with unprecedented circumstances, where he is at now is a place he’s never been before. And while O’Brien is a planner of near-OCD proportions, a management student as an undergrad whose first big act as head coach was to create a team-wide org chart, even he has to admit he is making some of it up as he goes along.

Friday’s practice, and Penn State’s training camp thus far, have provided insight into some of O’Brien’s strategies for dealing with Year 2 of the NCAA sanctions. Here are five of them:


1. The Ben Hur Syndrome, or What you lack in scholarship players, you make up with a run-on cast of thousands. Linebacker drills on Friday included Ryan Ammerman, Matthew Baney, Brandon Bell, Glenn Carson, Adam Cole, Sean Corcoran, Hunter Crafford, Carter Henderson, Mike Hull, Charles Idemudia, Garth Lakitsky, T.J. Rhattigan, Kyle Searfoss, Brandon Smith, Nyeem Wartman, Mike Wian, Gary Wooten and Tyler Yazujian. That's 18. Ben Kline, sidelined with a shoulder injury, makes 19.

O’Brien is throwing the kitchen sink at the position. That group, as a whole, has 25 career starts at Penn State. Carson has 24 of ’em.

2. Kicker in the Wing. Freshman kicker Chris Gulla eschewed overtures from South Carolina and Maryland to attend Penn State – for no scholarship money. He may well be worth the price, and more. On Friday he crushed a pair of 26-yard field goals, from the left and right hashes. “Good kick, Chris,” O’Brien applauded after the second one. “Nice job.” Sam Ficken may be the No. 1 kicker right now, but – yes, Virginia -- Gulla provides O’Brien a Door No. 2 he dearly needed last season.

3. Here’s to You, Mister Robinson. Expect to see lighter loads for key Nittany Lions continue as the season progresses. And the proverbial caution tape will stay up all season long. Zwinak, who broke his hand early in the spring game, is still wearing a red (limited contact) jersey in practice.

4. Recruiting Days. O’Brien opened the Lions’ meeting rooms, practices and souls to ESPN, which spent 10 days filming the team, gathering up to 70 hours of tape that is being carved into a series of specials and SportsCenter segments. Why? Recruiting. A 30-second advertising spot on ESPN typically costs $54,415, according to Media Daily News. All told, O’Brien and Penn State are getting almost three hours of programming. For free. Sticker price, 30 seconds at a time, otherwise: $19.58 million.

5. Circle the Wagons. In the very first official team meeting, two Mondays ago, with ESPN cameras rolling, O’Brien showed his squad a PowerPoint, with a header that said, “TRUST,” for: "T – Total Humility; R – Remember Where You Came From. U – Us Against The World. S – Stay in The Present. T – Team."

None of this means that O’Brien has gone soft. He may be smart, but he’s still a smart ass. Witness Friday morning, when he viewed a pass-catch drill from 50 yards downfield.

He didn’t like how the Nittany Lion receivers sans Robinson were grabbing the ball and stopping upon the reception.

“Run after the catch!” O’Brien barked from halfway across the field. “Ever hear of it?”


Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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