The Month Ahead for Bill O'Brien and Penn State Football
The well-oiled machine that is the Penn State football program these days has already shifted gears.
The 114 points that were the 2013 Blue-White Game are a scant 30 hours old, but the season-opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31 is “only” 131 days away.
Bill O’Brien is in Chicago on Monday for a Big Ten rules meeting, the student part of being a student-athlete has really kicked in and the Nittany Lion assistant coaches have been burning up Mapquest as they prepare to redouble their recruiting efforts.
The off-season is officially here, but no one is really off – especially O’Brien, as he continues to go full-bore on Year No. 2 as head coach. For starters, it will be a manic Monday, since he will do an out-and-back to America's heartland.
“I have a Big Ten coaches meeting in Chicago to talk about the NCAA recruiting rules,” O’Brien said on Saturday, rolling his eyes. “I am really looking forward to that.”
There’s a lot of muck there. In February, the Big Ten football coaches and athletic directors met in suburban Chicago, and after that meeting they issued a joint statement outlining their “serious concerns” about the NCAA’s attempt to deregulate recruiting restrictions. The NCAA recanted on some of the proposals, but the NCAA's Rules Working Group -- the same body that submitted the proposals -- meets May 2 in Indianapolis.
Who knows what will happen. These days, the NCAA certainly doesn’t.
Back at Penn State, here’s what is on the program’s plate between now and Memorial Day:
After returning Monday night, O’Brien will spend the next 10 days meeting individually with as many of the 90-plus Nittany Lions as possible. In some cases – as it most assuredly was after the 2012 spring drills with quarterbacks Rob Bolden and Paul Jones – it will be a Come-to-Jesus discussion.
“…We will talk about where they’re at academically, obviously where they are at football-wise, and anything they want to talk about,” O’Brien said. “I think that is something that I will always do here at Penn State.”
During such discussions last year, O’Brien informed Matt McGloin the starting quarterback job was his. That's not going to happen with Tyler Ferguson or Steven Bench, the spring’s top two quarterbacks. Not with Christian Hackenberg set to arrive on campus in late June.
He’ll also meet with his assistant coaches daily, going over football items in the morning, freeing them in the afternoon to work on their recruiting efforts.
Then, in eight days O’Brien will hit the road for the Coaches Caravan, Part Deux. In 2012, O’Brien led a contingent of Penn State head coaches from other sports on a 17-city, 18-event, nine-day 1,968-mile journey that covered seven states and Washington, D.C. Along the way, O’Brien – just four months into the job – did over 80 press conferences and interviews.
He’s dialing back in 2013. But only a bit. From April 30-May 2, the caravan will make stops in Reading, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Lancaster and Harrisburg’s West Shore. Then, from May 7-9, O’Brien and Co. will head to Williamsport, the Lehigh Valley, New York City, Scranton, DuBois and Pittsburgh.
Joining him on different portions of the trip will be basketball coaches Pat Chambers and Coquese Washington, as well as wrestling coach Cael Sanderson and women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose.
O’Brien, who doubles as the offensive coordinator, will also focus his attention where yours and mine are as well – the quarterback position. Video coordinator Jevin Stone -- who worked on the video staffs of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns, as well as in the XFL – has no doubt already done cut-ups of every QB snap taken during practice and in the Blue-White Game.
“What I’ll do is go back myself and I’m going to watch all of the film from the spring over the next week,” O’Brien said on Saturday. “I think both guys did some good things. I’ve said that all spring. No, I’m not any closer (to a decision on the starter) as I sit here right now.”
THE ASSISTANT COACHES
The core of O’Brien’s staff is now in charted territory – eight of the nine were working together at this time last year, and have three rounds of practices (two springs, one summer) and a season under their belts. Larry Johnson (18 years) and Ron Vanderlinden (13 years) have been working in Lasch considerably longer. Only safeties coach Anthony Midget, hired in February, is new.
And while John Butler is the team's new defensive coordinator, he’s been with the program since O’Brien was hired. And the two are close. "We talk several times a day,” Butler said on Saturday.
The group will meet with O'Brien in the mornings, then plot out their plans for recruiting trips while their head coach is off galavanting around the Mid-Atlantic region.
What the NCAA calls its “evaluation period” runs from April 15 to May 31, when assistant coaches can meet with recruits. (O’Brien is forbidden from doing so during this time frame.) Sundays and Memorial Day are off-limits. Then, from June 1 to July 31 is a “quiet period,” when no off-campus recruiting is permitted.
The assistant coaches will have their own position cut-ups from Stone as well, as they’ll spend time doing self-scouting as well as making evaluations of spring drill performances. For his part, Butler said he does not expect players like Malik Golden and Trevor Williams, who switched from offense to the secondary in the spring, to return to the offensive side of the ball in the fall.
This marks the beginning of Week 15 of the spring semester, which means some early finals, some serious studying and – most dreaded of all – completing projects. Finals then go April 29 to May 3, with commencement exercises, held by each individual college, running May 3-5.
Then, at last, the players can head home for a week or two. Center Ty Howe says that’s enough. “We’ll go home and relax a bit,” he said. “But you almost don’t want to stay away from it too long. It’s well-documented how well we do when we hit the weight room.”
Craig Fitzgerald, director of strength and conditioning for football, has outlined a 12-week program for the Nittany Lions. That should take them up to late July, which is when official summer drills – 29 allowable practices – will start, according to Butler. (He says no exact date has been set.)
Most of the players will take summer classes, allowing them to ease their course load during the fall season. They’ll return in time for the first six-week session of classes, which runs from May 13 to June 24. The second summer session goes from June 26 to Aug. 9.
Linebacker Mike Hull, a finance major with a minor in energy business, is as earnest off the field as he is on it. (He’s a two-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree.) He’ll take nine credits in the summer, then will need only a dozen credits in the fall to graduate in three-and-half years. For the defense, he’ll be joined by fellow linebacker Glenn Carson and secondary veterans Malcolm Wills and Adrian Amos in leading players-only workouts.
“The coaches put a lot on us four to get everyone together this summer,” he said. “We’ll work five days a week – four on conditioning and weights, then the fifth on 7-on-7 drills that will be player-run. We’ll stick around after that, too, and get done what we need to get done.”
For Howle, that means extra work with the quarterbacks.
“On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, we’ll do snaps together, make sure we get our timing right,” he said. “I’ll talk to the quarterbacks. We’ll talk about little stuff – protection changes, making sure we give them enough time to change a call. If they need help with IDs and protection – Bench, Ferguson, (Austin) Whipple, (D.J.) Crook – I’ll gladly help them.”
Good idea. At this point, when it comes to the quarterbacks, it looks like it will take a village. And the summer.