Penn State Football: O’Brien is College Football’s Capologist
The numbers game created by the NCAA sanctions against Penn State – and managed daily by head coach Bill O’Brien and his staff – is really starting to rear its ugly head.
You could see it on the Nittany Lions’ practice field last week, when they officially began spring drills.
And you can see it when you scan the rosters of Penn State’s most punishing opponents on its 2013 Big Ten Conference schedule. First, the numbers:
ON THE ROSTER
Penn State’s spring roster features 91 players, and O’Brien said last month, “The scholarship range is maybe low 70s, (with) not less than 70 going forward, when (fall) training camp starts.” That includes five scholarship freshmen who were early enrollees in January, and 12 more freshman scholarship players who will arrive in June. Penn State must get down to 65 scholarship players (85 is typical) by the start of the 2014 season.
Let’s compare Penn State’s numbers situation against that 2013 Murderers’ Row, knowing that teams can only have 105 players for summer practice before their rosters balloon again with walk-ons once fall semester classes start:
Penn State – 91-player spring roster, low 70s fall scholarships, 5 early scholarship enrollees in January, 12 scholarship freshmen starting in the fall (17 scholarship freshmen overall).
Michigan (home, Oct. 12) – 91-player spring roster, 85 scholarships, 6 early scholarship enrollees, 21 scholarship freshmen in the fall (27 scholarship freshmen overall).
Ohio State (away, Oct. 26) – 85-player spring roster, 82 scholarships (the remnants of an NCAA penalty), 5 early scholarship enrollees, 22 scholarship freshmen in the fall (27 scholarship freshmen overall).
Nebraska (home, Nov. 23) – 138-player spring roster, 85 fall scholarships, 3 early scholarship enrollees, 23 scholarship freshmen starting in the fall (26 scholarship freshmen overall).
Wisconsin (away, Nov. 30) – 93-player spring roster, 85 fall scholarships, 3 early scholarship enrollees, 17 scholarship freshmen starting in the fall (20 freshmen overall).
For Penn State, the numbers speak for themselves, and they’re saying, “More walk-ons.” Urban and Brady both got 27 scholarship freshmen – 10 more than O’Brien. (And yes, Bo, we didn’t forget the 'Huskers: You have nine more.) O’Brien’s Brown degree in organizational behavior management is being put to the test.
“We think we have a lot of really good players, but based on numbers there are some depth issues,” O’Brien said last week. “Yeah, there’s certainly some numbers issues. But I think we are still dealing with a little bit of the same situation that we dealt with in 2012. I think when it gets really, really difficult is really ’14 to ’15, ’16. In ’13, even though we have depth issues, we don't have to get down to 65 until 2014.”
ON THE FIELD
Last Wednesday, the Nittany Lions’ secondary drills under first-year safeties coach Anthony Midget showed just how versatile O’Brien’s squad must be as the number of freshmen- and roster-wide scholarships continue to dwindle. Among the very first drills of the new season, inside Penn State’s Holuba Hall, Midget and defensive coordinator John Butler put the group of cornerbacks and safeties through their paces.
For the first team, at one corner was junior Adrian Amos, a starter last season and a team leader. At the other corner was sophomore Jordan Lucas, listed as a safety on the spring roster. Lucas saw a fair amount of game time in 2012 as a true freshman, playing mostly on Penn State’s special teams and a sprinkle in the secondary.
Running at safety was senior Malcolm Willis, a returning starter, and then the tandem of returning senior starter Stephen Obeng-Ayapong and junior Ryan Keiser. Obeng-Agyapong, who had offseason shoulder surgery, is taking spring drills gingerly. Keiser, for his part, is a former walk-on awarded a scholarship by O’Brien.
The second unit was even more eclectic. Lucas moved back to safety to play alongside junior Jesse Della Valle (who is listed as a corner), another former walk-on awarded a scholarship. At the corners were freshmen Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith, both of whom enrolled in January 2013.
Granted, it was the just the first of 15 official spring practices, which are geared toward individual skill development, testing players at new positions and the early construction of a new on-the-field team identity. But it sure is a mix-and-match group: three starters, but after that two freshman just nine weeks into their first college semester, two former walk-ons made good and a sophomore playing two positions on the first two units.
A GOLDEN MOVE
And let’s not forget the versatile 6-foot-1, 186-pound Malik Golden, who didn’t play in 2012 as a true freshman, instead impressing on the scout team. This is what O’Brien had to say about him earlier in the day:
“Then we moved Malik Golden” in the offseason, O’Brien said. “That was another discussion that Malik and I had. What we may do with Malik is work with him half the practices on defense (cornerback) and half on offense (wide receiver), maybe the first seven or eight (practices) on defense and the last seven or eight on offense and do something like that.”
Like Nate Cadogen (OT to DT) and Garry Gilliam (OT to TE) before him, Golden won’t be the last player to flip-flop.
“Certainly there are other moves that may be made because we are going to try to do what's best for the football team,” O’Brien said. “If we think a guy can help us on defense and maybe still play offense, because of the numbers that we have... we’ll certainly look at doing that. As the spring goes along, we'll see how that plays out.
Like a pro sports capologist, O’Brien is trying to squeeze everything he can out of every scholarship, out of every position. Della Valle, for instance, is also a return man – in 2012, he averaged 7.6 yards on 15 punt returns and 25.2 yards on six kickoff returns. JDV, from Pennsylvania’s Shaler High School, may be the poster boy moving forward -- his high school nickname, after all, was Jesse Dollar Value.
Recruiting coordinator Charles London acknowledged the template is being set: “We are looking for anything that can help us football-wise. We are looking for that kid who can be a great corner and can also be a returner or can help us in some other aspect of the special teams. We are always looking for that.”
London, O’Brien and assistant head coach Stan Hixon were all coaches in the pros and are accustomed to the NFL’s 53-man roster – which gets cut even further to 46 players on game day, when seven of the 53 players are declared inactive.
The 65-scholarship limit is on the minds daily of London and O’Brien, as well as director of player personnel Bill Kavanaugh and new hire John Power, a former offensive coordinator at Fork Union Military Academy and football player at Georgia who will be a recruiting assistant at Penn State (as O'Brien foreshadowed in early January). Power's Feb. 14 hiring was first reported by Blue White Illustrated.
“We always have to keep that in mind,” London said. “We are always actively working towards that. In every recruit meeting, that is a number we constantly talk about -- making sure that it is being managed. That is something that Bill Kavanaugh has done a great job with. As coaches, we like to stick to the big picture. He likes to keep us on the straight and narrow, and he has done a great job of that.”
For his part as head coach, O’Brien’s big picture message sounds like this:
“What we talk about as a staff all the time is we’re not about collecting talent, we're about building a team."
It’s just a tougher job than anyone else's.