Penn State Football: 60 Minutes of Spring Practice With Bill O’Brien
4:23 p.m., Monday afternoon
The Nittany Lion outdoor football practice fields. Penn State blue skies, fluffy white Penn State clouds. The grass greened early by the dawn of a spring some thought would never come.
But the winds of change were there on Monday, all right, blowing north by northwest, with gusts of up to 15 mph.
“Omaha,” grunts Bill O’Brien to a row of six red-jerseyed quarterbacks taking snaps from a half-dozen squatting centers, spread out 40 yards almost sideline to sideline.
The quarterbacks fake left, boot right. In unison.
“Alpha,” shouts O’Brien, Penn State’s new head coach.
The quarterbacks fake right, boot left. Synchronized throwers.
It had been 80 days since O’Brien was named as the successor to the late Joe Paterno. And while O’Brien has worked hard to successfully connect with recruits, fans, high school coaches, students and the like since he arrived from the New England Patriots, March 26, 2012, was no doubt circled as a red-letter day on his office calendar.
“Excitement,” says O’Brien, who we have quickly learned is rarely given to hyperbole, “is a great word to describe it.”
Charlie Fisher, a medium-sized man lost in a large grey sweatshirt and extra large baggy blue sweats, may be Penn State’s new quarterback coach. But make no mistake: O’Brien is the man coaching the quarterbacks.
Fisher, who resembles an older Alfred E. Newman, wears a smiling “What, me worry?” look that is no doubt commonplace when the guy who used to coach Tom Brady is now tutoring the handful of players assigned to your guidance. Fisher does coach, but more deftly, and oft-center from O’Brien.
“134, Jonesy,” O’Brien says to quarterback Paul Jones. “134! The ball’s coming out real quick.”
O’Brien grabs the air as if it were a football and shoves it vigorously straight from his body for a left-sided hand-off. Jones looks, nods his head. O’Brien calls a play, watches, critiques. This is his drill. This is his (only) way. No doubt about that.
Penn State’s new head coach dresses strikingly similar to the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator: grey sweatshirt, blue ballcap with a white Nike swoosh on the back, blue sweats with thick white stripes, a whistle tethered around a thick white lanyard.
O’Brien, next play: “I near flank 135 Y Celtic X-in on your mike on 1.”
Yikes. And Jones thought learning “134” was going to be tough. If Jones, and the others, imagined the first day of official spring drills was going to a ramp-up to the next 14, they were wrong.
“Speed it up,” urges O’Brien, “speed it up.”
O’Brien heads east, over to the practice field where assistant coach John Butler is guiding the Penn State punting unit. Holdover assistant Larry Johnson stands a few yards back, with a half-circle of players.
Not Butler. After every punt, he blitzes the first five yards downfield, yelling and moving in a near-frenzy. Then he turns, runs back, starts chattering and waits for another boot. Stir up, repeat.
O’Brien stands on the sidelines, watching. After a few minutes, he heads downfield to survey things from a new vantage point. He positions himself only a few yards from the handful of Nittany Lion return men, if not in their faces then definitely in their heads. The punts land in all directions, dropping like bombs, but O’Brien doesn’t move. The returners have a comrade in arms.
Back to the offense for BOB. Two offensive groups run plays, one group headed north, the other south. O’Brien stands in the middle, eschewing the customary help of a grad assistant, calling plays literally right and left.
But he watches right more. That’s where the first team is, no doubt about it.
The offensive line includes Matt Stankiewitch, Mike Farrell, Adam Gress and John Urschel. Matt McGloin is at quarterback, Silas Redd at tailback. And at fullback are Michael Zordich and a host of tight ends, led by Garry Gilliam.
On Monday, O’Brien had eight tight ends and eight wide receivers on the practice field. Ala the Patriots, the tight ends were everywhere – often in a three-point stance in the backfield.
But the receiver O’Brien focuses on most is Justin Brown, who will be a senior in the fall, and is far and away Penn State’s top wide receiver. At 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds, Brown has pro size and NFL potential. But his psyche still needs some coaching. In that regard, O’Brien has done his homework.
Brown grabs a fairly simple 12-yarder from McGloin: “That’s it, Brownie,” praises O’Brien, “that’s it.”
McGloin, not that sharp, especially into a rough wind, tosses one over Brown’s head. “Good route, Brownie,” O’Brien reprises his praise, “good route.”
Stretching. O’Brien stands in the second of five rows of players who stretch the width of the field. He walks slowly from side to side, quiet, anxious, examining the grass. He can’t wait to get back to coaching.
The players break out into drills by position. O’Brien sticks with the offense, and walks by the sidelines, where the tight ends are hopping over bags, each finishing the exercise with a lackluster step.
“Hey, how about a three-yard burst at the end of the drill?” O’Brien shouts. It’s not a request.
A minute later, two players in a row step on a bag rather than over it. “Stop killing the bags,” says O’Brien, disgusted. “Let’s go!”
O’Brien stands in the center of the two fields, at the almost exact midpoint of the entire outdoor layout. He blows his whistle, points his right arm north and makes little circles with his left index finger, poked high in the sky.
“Move it, move it, move it.”
O’Brien is back with the offense, which is running more pass plays. Danny O’Brien, the erstwhile Maryland quarterback in search of a new team, is on the edge of the practice field, standing on the white-chalked “40.” He had already made one trip to campus, but came back – at Bill O’Brien’s behest – to see the team in action. On Monday, the coach gave the signal-caller plenty to watch.
O’Brien is hopping from quarterbacks to tight ends to wide receivers. Assistant head coach and veteran receivers coach Stan Hixon nonchalantly steps aside when he sees his boss approaching. One coach, three positions, one offense.
“Hold up, hold up, hold up.”
O’Brien walks out to the defensive side of the ball, five yards from scrimmage. He puts his hand on the shoulder of tight end Kevin Haplea. “You can’t run away from him,” he says, raising his hands to intercept the ball as if he were a linebacker. “He’ll pick it off like that.”
The newness of the first practice has worn off. O’Brien is not happy.
To Matt Brown, after the tight end’s leaping one-handed circus catch is not even acknowledged: “Now listen, after that release this what you need to do…”
To McGloin: “Lead him outside, Matt.”
To himself, after a bunch of receivers screw up their most basic of routes: “Jesus, it’s only a 16-yard comeback.”
To the next guy to run that route: “Tighter, tighter – the corner is going to be all over that shit.”
The media corps, invited to watch practice, starts to leave.
But Bill O’Brien remains. He’s just getting started.