Penn State Football: Bill O’Brien’s NFL-Like Roster is 'Next Play Up'
Next man up. Next play up.
For a Penn State football team in The Sanction Error, there’s too few of the former to often have the depth to cover every one of the latter.
In other words, Bill O’Brien is a lot closer to utilizing an NFL-sized roster than you think.
In fact, he’s already damned close. And the NCAA limit of 65 scholarships doesn’t officially kick in until 2014.
Despite handing out a few scholarships to a quintet of walk-ons at the start if the season, Penn State is already in the 65-scholie range -- with the likely hope that if and when the NCAA reduces the sanctions, PSU gets credit for cutting its grant-in-aids a year early. Defensive coordinator John Butler after the Central Florida game threw around the idea that Penn State is already around the 62 scholarship number.
But the for-real, on-the-field numbers are, for all intents and purposes, lower than that.
Last week against Central Florida, which was a tight game throughout, 50 Penn State players saw action. As in only 50. How many dressed is inconsequential.
Against Syracuse at MetLife, another wire-to-wire ballgame, O’Brien played just 52. And one was tight end Matt Lehman, injured early in the game and out for the season. Another was Mike Hull, also hurt, and limited in his contributions. (Both were experienced starters at key positions, BTW.) According to Big Ten rules, O’Brien was allowed to travel 85 players to New Jersey. He actually took in the low 70s.
Notice a trend? (Against Eastern Michigan, a blow-out that could be an anomaly this season, 64 Nittany Lions played.)
How small are that 50 and 52? This small:
The NFL goes with a 53-man roster – which gets cut even further to 46 players on game day, when seven of the 53 players are declared inactive. What does that mean? Well, take the Philadelphia Eagles last night … please.
The Eagles’ Chip Kelly decided to make the following players “inactive” before game time: Matt Barkley, Roc Carmichael, Emil Igwenagu, Dennie Kelly, Jordan Poyer, Damion Square and Matt Tobin. Fine, but that doesn’t explain why so many of the Eagles who actually did dress also looked inactive in their five-turnover 26-16 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
That O’Brien had five years with the Patriots, and running backs coach Charles London and receivers coach/assistant head coach Stan Hixon also coached in the pros, means that 30% of the Penn State staff has lived the principles of NFL roster management.
YOUTH IS BEING SERVED
This is where Penn State’s roster is really telling:
Fourteen Nittany Lions are playing their first year of college football (8 true freshmen and 8 sophs who redshirted last year). That's more than the 11 Lions playing their last year, counting true seniors and fifth-year players. With a host of freshmen redshirts, it is clear that OB is building for the removal of Bowl Sanctions, 2016 A.D. Those 14 kids, led by Christian Hackenberg – plus this year’s redshirts -- will be seniors in 2016 and eligible to play in a bowl game. If O’Brien is around, there’s no question the Lions will go bowling.
Be it NFL or B12, the play’s still the thing. As in 2,504 of ’em over O’Brien’s first 10 wins and five losses – a per-game average of 76 for PSU’s offense, 71 for its defense, plus a combined 10 punts and 10 kickoffs for both teams.
We’ve all heard O’Brien’s mantra, “Next man up,” which is repeated dutifully by his players. Here’s the problem:
As the deep impact of reduced scholarships really starts to cut, the Nittany Lions are being challenged in myriad fashions. Not the least of which is a preponderance of green Lions. Penn State opened the season in MetLife with six of its 11 defenders starting at their position for the first time, with a seventh starting for the second time. Ever.
And on offense, the 18-year-old QB lost two tight ends in one game (one returned, elbowing his way back at reduced strength due to a bone bruise) and took it on the chin when he was A-Robbed of the team’s best player for 30 minutes. Hackenberg responded by completing 70.9% of his passes, while throwing for 278 yards and two TDs.
That was just for (season) openers.
Times and offenses change, but a neat Onward State piece by Ben Berkman led me to research Todd Blackledge’s stats in his first three games as a starter in 1980: 3 wins, 22 of 40 for 263 yards, with five interceptions, three TD passes and a pair of touchdowns running. That was then, when scholarships were only starting to dwindle from 95 to 85. This is now: Penn State has about 33% fewer scholarship players now than during The Blackledge Years of 1980-82, one of the two best stretches of football in Penn State history.
No wonder last night, on his weekly radio show, O'Brien said, "I believe if we had 25 scholarships to give we’d be unbelievable and we’ll get back to that. It just won’t be for a few years."
KINDA LIKE "300"
These days are not quite the Battle of Thermopylae in “300,” but you get the idea. O’Brien tells his players to “win the day,” in practice and in games. As he said in so many words earlier this week, he really means every single down (especially third downs, these days). Among the 166 or so plays in a Penn State game, just a handful will truly decide the game.
The problem is akin to trying to decipher a Taylor Swift boyfriend: You never really know which one matters ’til the Skinny Chick sings.
O’Brien was talking about Hackenberg on Tuesday, but he could have been really speaking about his whole team or football in general when he said that 100% of a game’s final outcome could lie in just 4% of the plays.
“I told (Hackenberg) yesterday if he could eliminate six or seven mistakes from his game, that he’ll keep improving and he’ll help our football team a lot,” O’Brien said. “He’s made some really good plays for us. There’s six or seven plays within each game he needs to really improve on.”
So, really, it’s more like “win the play,” which is not all that novel. More or less. With less top-shelf players a fumble or getting burnt or missing a tackle hurts more. Anything can happen to anyone at any time. When one of the defense’s top players was injured against the Orangemen – a knee problem that now lingers – the defense could have gone down with the (Mike) Hull of the ship.
But in stepped Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, 2 inches shorter and 22 pounds thinner than Hull, not to mention several years lighter on ’backer experience. No matter. Next. Time waits for no Lion.
Focus is paramount. After the second and occasionally the first team, the Penn State depth chart (especially at linebacker) can be as puzzling as a Miley Cyrus performance – right down to the thudding and the twerking. Still, in Lasch there’s extensive planning about the future. Like a broad-reaching walk-on program where the Keystone State is the cornerstone and a roster management strategy that has to be near-Belichickian in nature.
It’s like O’Brien is playing Stratego without a Spy or a Scout. Or Risk minus the chance to own two continents. That's Bill. Never bored. Always game.
110 PLAYERS - 58 OF 'EM FRESHMEN
O’Brien does have a cast of thousands. Or, rather, around two score walk-ons. His roster totals 58 freshmen – that includes scholarship and pay-your-own-way players, as well as true freshmen and redshirt sophomores. I hate to break the news, but that’s a disproportionate amount of freshmen … uh … fighters when your total roster numbers 110.
At home, against let’s say Michigan, the difference is not so great. Road teams in the Big Ten may only dress 70 players; home teams have no limit. But when dozens of your backups will never see the light of day in games, let alone dress, there is even more pressure on your A-Robs, your Carsons, your ZZwinaks.
It’s like Snoop Dogg raps: “You … without me, is like Harold Melvin without the Blue Notes …”
And that, my friend, is Bill O’Brien’s Doggy Dogg World.