Countdown to Blue-White / 18 Days: O'Brien Raises Expectations and Intensity in Year Two
This is the sixteenth in a 33-day series about the Penn State football program leading up to the Blue-White Game on April 20. We've put together a team of football writers who will examine a variety of topics and answer key questions about Bill O’Brien’s team. Click here for past installments in the series.
The huddle had only been broken for eight seconds before Bill O’Brien stopped the play in its tracks.
“Who is the F?” O’Brien shouted, alluding to one of the three titles for the tight end position in his system. Sophomore Jesse James raised his hand as O’Brien walked up to the line of scrimmage, talking to James about proper alignment.
With the offense properly set, O’Brien stepped back again as transfer quarterback Tyler Ferguson stood in the backfield shouting out commands. This time it took O’Brien only three seconds to step in.
“We’ve got to get this right this year,” O’Brien said lining up next to Ferguson. “Here I’ll show you this one.”
With O’Brien making a brief cameo appearance in the shotgun formation, the second year head coach shouted out directions to the offense.
James went in motion; O’Brien checked out of the play and then barked out a single command to snap the ball. Sophomore Akeel Lynch stepped up and took the handoff from O’Brien and made a short run up the field. It was flawless execution, and as Ferguson tried his hand at the play the result garnered a brief applause from O’Brien.
“Good, good.” He said.
That sort of scene has been a regular occurrence during O’Brien’s second year at the helm. Everyone from Allen Robinson to the manager placing the ball has the task of meeting expectations set by O’Brien. The honeymoon period is over, and O’Brien is clearly focused on the task at hand with the intensity ratcheted higher and higher.
“I’m definitely more comfortable,” O’Brien said prior to spring practice, comparing his feelings before his first and second years. “I don't know if I was ever confident. I'm definitely more comfortable. I understand the players better. I believe they understand us better. The staff really understands how we work, how long we meet, when to meet, all those different things, what our expectations are as a staff of each other and of the players.”
Those expectations are visible everywhere. During a drill, a poor start by two players led to O’Brien saying what has turned into the unsaid motto of the spring.
“Cut that crap out,” O’Brien said. “You aren’t getting away with that stuff this year.”
Later in the day O'Brien became the ball boy wanting to run a drill faster and faster. "Hey come here and do this," O'Brien shouted to a manager. "These strength guys don't know what the heck they're doing."
Despite his best and ever improving efforts, the fundraising and banquet side of the job has likely been a quiet addition to O’Brien’s infamous list of dislikes. While Joe Paterno’s off the field persona often eclipsed his coaching, sooner or later O’Brien will be caught scribbling a play design on the back of a napkin two-hours deep into a program.
It’s not that he doesn't care; it’s just that coaching is what makes him go. With the bulk of Penn State’s off the field drama settled and behind the program, O’Brien clearly has begun to dig in and work in a way he had not yet been able to.
“Really, at the end of the day, what we all love to do is coach and be on the field, and watch these guys improve from day-to-day,” O’Brien said. “We really are fortunate because we work with a bunch of really good kids that work hard, that compete and so really, the biggest thing is we are just looking forward to getting onto the field coaching.”
O’Brien isn't the only one taking advantage of a second year in the same system. Strength and Conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald has produced drastic results with players, many adding or losing significant pounds while maintaining or improving speed and agility.
The playbook has begun to expand as well. O’Brien keeps those sorts of things largely a secret, but a better understanding of his roster is yielding more opportunities to grow both offensive and defensive packages.
"Last year we were literally walking in every day and learning a play we'd never seen before," right tackle Adam Gress said. "Now we've had a whole year of it and we're already running things now that we hadn't installed until camp last year."
Penn State will continue to play under the stress of sanctions, and real questions remain for the 2013 season, but O’Brien’s intensity in year two should leave fans with little doubt that the Nittany Lions will be ready to go come August 31.
Day 21: Glenn Carson is Ready to Shine