Penn State Football: Complete Bill O'Brien Transcript for Northwestern Week
Transcript provided by ASAP Sports
Q. Can you evaluate the offense as a whole, and how much progress it's made since the start of camp?
COACH O'BRIEN: Well, I would go all the way back to spring practice on that to really evaluate it. When you bring in a new system it's a lot like learning a new language.
So in the spring, it was up‑and‑down and I felt like in the blue white game, it was okay, and I was concerned about it going into the summertime and I knew that because of the rules that we were not allowed to meet with these guys in the summertime, that the guys were going to have to do a lot on their own.
So we came into training camp and obviously many, many of the guys on offense did a lot of work on their own and got together and either threw routes or worked on blocking schemes on their own, or did some things that really helped them coming into training camp.
So I believe we've made progress, but there's such a long way to go. You know, yesterday we show them every week a good and bad tape from the previous game and the Saturday game. So it was about 50/50 on offense, good and bad. So there's so many things to improve upon and some things to build upon. But I do believe that progress has been made.
Q. I wanted to ask about your recruiting approach, I was just wondering, how big of a priority is it for you to identify future place kickers and puntersand how big of a challenge is it with your recruiting sanctions and numbers being limited as far as offense.
COACH O'BRIEN: It will always be a big priority to identify obviously all the positions of need, and obviously that includes place kicker and punter. Ideally you'd like a guy that can do both. So it's one person.
But at the end of the day, you just have to do a really good job of identifying, and it does‑‑ you're right, you're on the money there, because you know, with the scholarship reductions, if you have a great punt error place kicker out there that you would like to compete in recruiting with, you have to offer him a scholarship and that's going to affect your overall numbers.
So that's a strategy that we are talking about every day, and it's an ever‑evolving strategy, but that's something that we are very well aware of.
Q. The defense has done a better job on third downs the past few weeks; how much of that is personality, getting Mike Hull on the field and moving Amos back, and how much is that execution?
COACH O'BRIEN: Really when you look at the whole year, the defense has played pretty well. I would say if you look at the first two games, if the offense had either kept drives alive by converting on third down or scoring more points, I would say all five games, the defense has played very well.
There's a lot of guys on this defense that really understand their role and are fun to be around. And you know, Mike Hull is a guy that really understands what his role is on the team as a backup linebacker. He's basically a semi‑starter because he plays such a big role on defense and on special teams. He's a fun guy to have around.
Who was the other guy you asked about?
Q. Third downs, moving Amos back to safety, how much of a difference has that made on third down?
COACH O'BRIEN: Obviously we have concentrated a lot on third down in practice. We work on third down every single day in practice so we make our players very aware of the sticks and the yardage on both sides of the ball. I think our team has improved in that respect.
Amos is a guy that is an excellent young player who can move around a lot. He's a big guy. He's a physical guy. He's got good ball skills. He's instinctive. You know, he's just done a nice job overall for us this year.
Q. What were your impressions of Colter and the wide receiver formation at Northwestern last week?
COACH O'BRIEN: Well, that's a guy that you have to understand on every single snap where he is.
So here is a guy that they are doing a great job with, Northwestern, of putting him in position to make plays. Obviously a quarterback, but then when they move him to wide receiver, with his skill set, he's quick. He's got good ball skills and a very bright guy obviously. In order to play quarterback and receiver in the same game, you have to be a very smart, instinctive football player.
So he is a huge challenge for us on Saturday, just like the whole team, Northwestern, coming in here is the best team that we face. Pat's done an excellent job there of just putting an excellent team together, an undefeated team. We have got a huge challenge ahead of us on Saturday.
Q. Wondering if you could offer any more insight into Zach Zwinak's success the last couple of weeks, not only just gaining yards, but he seems like he's literally punishing defenders as he runs.
COACH O'BRIEN: Just like all those guys at that position. They have all had their moments. In the last two weeks, he's had decent games. You know, just like I told all those guys yesterday, don't get it comfortable because you have a team coming in here on Saturday that's 5‑0 that's ready to stop that.
But I believe he's worked hard in practice. I think he's a competitive kid, and it's really, really important to him to play football at Penn State, to go to school at Penn State. And he's done a nice job the last two weeks, but we've got seven more to go, so he's got to keep it going.
Q. Could you go back to your first meeting with Michael Mauti after you talk the job, what you thought of him, and how you thought he would embrace everything you wanted him to do, and has he embraced that and how quickly he embraced the leadership part of it?
COACH O'BRIEN: The first time I met Mike Mauti was the night that basically I was hired here, or the day of the press conference, that night I had a team meeting. He came right up to me after the meeting and had a lot of questions about our strength and conditioning program.
So I knew right away that he was a passionate football player. I knew about his family. I knew that his dad had played here and been a great player here and played in the National Football League for several years. So I could tell right away that football was very important to Michael.
And then as I got to know that whole senior class, which is what‑‑ we talk about Michael Mauti a lot and Michael would be the first to tell you that there's a lot of guys in that class, the Zordiches, the Hodges', the Hills, the Fagnanos, Morrises; you go right down the line‑‑ I don't know, again, I have no idea what's going to happen this year.
I always tell you, I'm not a Genie, but I do know that this is a very special group of kids that practice very hard and have excellent leadership qualities.
Q. Northwestern, 256 yards rushing per game and 14 touchdowns. What are they doing right, and what could you do about it?
COACH O'BRIEN: Well, they are doing a lot of things right. And we are going to‑‑ we started last night in practice and trying to figure out what we can do about it, that's for sure. We have got a long way to go this week.
You know, they do a nice job with their tempo. They play very fast. They do a great job of spreading you out and making you make plays in space. And they do a really good job of that.
So you know, these are things that we have got to understand this week. We have to understand who their top players are, where they are in the formation. We have to understand which quarterback is in the game. Quite obviously when you gain 700 yards in a game on offense, you're talking about a top‑notch‑‑ if not for the Baylor ‑ West Virginia game, everyone would be talking about Northwestern gaining 700 yards in their game.
So they are an excellent football team, well‑coached and we have got a big, big challenge this week.
Q. You have been around a lot of college athletes and I'm wondering work ethic wise, how does John Urschel compare to the rest of them, what he's done off and on the field?
COACH O'BRIEN: Really very impressed with John Urschel. What a fantastic kid. I've said this before about the other guys, John has got a another, year thank God, but really an older player on our team, and what a great guy to be around. That's why you want a job like this because you have a chance to coach and be around guys like that.
Here is a guy that's a 4.0 math major at Penn State. He's graded out at 90 percent last week in the Illinois game, just a tough guy, has great flexibility, very smart, very instinctive. Really just what Penn State is all about, John Urschel.
So again like I said, we are happy with the way he's playing and we are really lucky that we have him for another year.
Q. A number of games across the country that producing basketball scores; are offenses that much ahead of defenses now in college football, and if so, why?
COACH O'BRIEN: I believe it's somewhat trendy. I have a great friend out at Oregon, Chip Kelly, who I've known for a lot of years. He's just put up incredible offensive numbers out there.
Really what it's about is what you believe in. You know, and those guys really have a strong belief in spread offenses, and making it a track meet in the sense that you're going to play very fast, you're going to try to run 90 plays a game and things like that and that's what they believe in and that's what football is all about. You have to stick with what you believe in.
So you know, I don't know if it's the fact that defenses are not as good and things like that. I just think you've got a lot of good athletes on both sides of the ball and when you spread teams out and you have a really athletic quarterback like West Virginia has, I didn't happen to see the game, but just reading about it, and listening to the commentators and things like that talk about the game. Well, you can tell that that was an up‑and‑down football game, fun to watch. But not a lot of defense.
So I just think it's two spread teams that went at it and put up good numbers on the board. Again, every year, the trend might be a little bit different.
COACH O'BRIEN: Yeah, we had a tackle‑over situation there, too, where when we were kicking inside the ten‑yard line, we put our tackle over because of the angle of the kick when it's on a hash.
So they blocked it from the long side. So you're talking about something that really made me not very happy. That was‑‑ didn't make me very happy. So we have worked on it this week already yesterday and we'll continue to work on it. But we have got to‑‑ like I always tell you, we have got to coach it better and we have to execute that better, but that's definitely something that we can't let that happen.
Q. How do you balance savoring a victory with getting a team to focus on the next challenge and how do you handle that as a coach?
COACH O'BRIEN: As I was saying earlier, what we do is Sunday is their mandatory day off, so we let them get their pats on the back on Sunday.
When they come in at 2:45 on Monday afternoon, we show them the tape from the game and we show them all of the things that they did well. Hey, look, this is really good how you played this, how you did this, how you took this block on, how you made this tackle, how you threw this ball.
Then we show them all of the things they didn't do so well and things that we need to coach better and things that they can do better execution‑wise; containing the quarterback, I would say that's going to be an issue this week. We have got to do a better job of that. We have to throw in‑cuts and crosses better. We have to do a much better job of that.
So that's how you do it. You show them on tape; you keep them focused on the things they are doing well, but you have to make sure that they understand, we have to do these things better if we think we are even going to come close to beating a 5‑0 Northwestern team. To me, that's what we talk about.
And again like I've always said to you guys, we talk about 12 one‑game seasons, so here we are, this is the sixth of those 12, and we focus on that opponent, what do we have to do with this opponent in order to give us the best chance to win. How are we going to play this game.
So get them pretty focused and hopefully they stay focused throughout the week.
Q. Zach Zwinak, a lot of people have been calling them like a really good downhill runner. What does he do that makes him a good downhill runner, and how does one become a good downhill runner, or is it more of an innate thing with your body type?
COACH O'BRIEN: Yeah, I think it's part of your skill set, bigger back, 230‑pound back that is a thick guy that has good speed. He is one of our faster backs. He's got good speed, but he's not a scat back. He's a physical, downhill guy that likes to press the line of scrimmage. There are certain runs that he's good at. You know, there's other runs that maybe he's not as good at and that he's got to improve at, things like that.
But what makes you a downhill runner is just you understand the intent of the blocking scheme that they are running, those are your favorite runs and you understand how to press the line of scrimmage, make your alignment right and get the ball into the teeth of the defense as fast as you can.
He's done a nice job of that. He takes care of the ball. He's not a big bounce guy. He's going to run up inside the tight ends and the tackles, and that's what he's good at doing.
They are just, again, we run a lot of different schemes in our offense. So there's just some other runs that we're working on with all those guys. I would say the same thing for every one of those guys; that there's certain runs that they run really well, maybe it's an outside run as opposed to an inside run or vice versa, and so we are working on those runs to try to improve those guys so they can run the whole gamut and do it pretty efficiently and that's what we are working on every day.
Q. How and with whom do you emulate Colter in practice?
COACH O'BRIEN: There will be a few guys that do that. You'll have some guys that rotate in there. Obviously quick guys, athletic guys, instinctive guys, maybe guys that did that type of thing in high school. You know, we have got some guys on our team that were spread option quarterbacks in high school, things like that.
So that's kind of how you emulate. It's hard. You know, you're never going to emulate it the way it's going to be on Saturday but you try to give your defense a decent look at it.
Q. They are going to be rotating play to play to play to play you said. So what are the challenges that a defense has to be able to pick that up very quickly within just a few seconds and how do you prepare your guys for that?
COACH O'BRIEN: Right. That's a big challenge. That's something where you have to know right away who is in the game. Then in your mind, you have to know, okay, these are the plays that they run with this guy in the game. These are the formations and tendencies out of formations that they run these plays, and these are the other formations that they run these other plays.
So you have to be a very sharp, focused outside on defense and then you have to communicate very well. You have to talk to each other, make sure you're lined up at the snap of the ball, because they are going to play very, very fast. And they are going to try to run 90 to 100 plays in the game. It's about communication and getting lined up and understanding who is in the game for them.
Q. You had an emotional win followed by, now you have a bye week on the other end of it. What's your experience; how do those dynamics add up or particularly when a team has a bye, especially this team that's been through a lot?
COACH O'BRIEN: I do like the fact that the bye week comes in the middle of the season. That's good. To me that's like a good time for a bye. You've had a long training camp. You've had the beginning of your season has been some tough, physical games, so that's one good thing.
But the No.1 thing is right now, we are just focusing on Northwestern, and so you know, we have got to do a great job this week of preparing for Northwestern, then see how that game goes.
Okay, so with you know sit back on Sunday and see how the Northwestern game goes. Who knows how it's going to go. We hope it goes well for Penn State but we'll evaluate that on Sunday and that will determine how we are going to schedule the bye week from a practice standpoint, from a meeting standpoint and from a days' off standpoint and all those things.
Q. What do you guys do on the sidelines when someone makes a bad play to keep the players from getting down on themselves and what assistant coaches stand out in that role?
COACH O'BRIEN: Well, we all contribute there. I wouldn't say that one coach stands out from another. I think the assistant coaches, the guys on the sideline all do a great job there.
We always talk about the next play. I know that's a cliché a lot of coaches talk about, but we just say, look, there's nothing that you can do about that last play. So what's the situation for the next play; what's the next play. Stop dwelling on the last play. Don't sit and think for a second that the plays, you know, woe is me. It's more about, what am I going to do to do a better job on the next play.
We talked to our guys about that in meetings, on the practice field. So some of the things in football are just about emphasis, it's hard to actually play it out, until you actually get into a game and things happen. But you can talk to them about it ‑‑ all the time, and so we talk about the next play, play the next play, and don't worry about the last play.
Q. One of the buzz words or phrases we like to use is maximizing talent. How do you evaluate or chart whether or not a player is reaching their potential, or is that even something that's in your vernacular at all?
COACH O'BRIEN: There's a lot of different ways to do that. You know, No. 1 is in the weight room. We talk about that all the time; what are his numbers starting out; what do we project his numbers to be after watching this guy workout, lift, run, do explosion‑type drills, plyometrics, things like that; where do we think this guy could be, that's one way to measure it.
Then on the field, it's a little bit harder. It's a little bit harder to measure that on the field, because in order to be a good football player you have to be instinctive; you have to be able to communicate; you have got to understand what's going on around you.
What we try to do is see the improvement of a guy. Okay, this week, he was really good at these plays but these other plays he wasn't so good at. The next week he really improved in those other plays and he's still doing well at these plays so maybe we can add some more to his plate.
So we kind of try to look at that every single day, every night after practice when we watch the tape together as a staff. We are talking about, hey, this guy needs to improve in this, but he's doing pretty well at these things. If we get him to improve in these three things, maybe at the end of the day, he can be an excellent player for us, so it's a little bit harder.
It's not the hard numbers that you have in the weight room where it's easier to judge a guy and how he can improve there, but we try to do that on the field, too, in some ways.
Q. I know you have limitations talking about recruiting, but how difficult do you anticipate recruiting will be in the next couple of years with the sanctions and how nice is it that you have some guys still in that class to help out future classes?
COACH O'BRIEN: Say that last part again.
Q. How nice that you're able to retain some of the bigger recruits from your current class.
COACH O'BRIEN: So that's an interesting question. I will tell you that when the sanctions happen, I know that everybody said, uh‑oh, here we go, what's going to happen to Penn State.
We have had a certain amount of home games. Let me give you a couple of examples. At every home game we've had between 40 and 50 prospects here, okay. So, you know, what are we talking about here. To me, we have been on national TV in every single game, and people enjoy watching these guys play, because they love to play football. And they are great kids.
So now, we are on national TV, we have got a heck of a football coaching staff. You know, the biggest‑‑ we have got one of the biggest stadiums in the country, people are talking about, we only had 95,000 at a game the other day. Name me a school and a country that had 95,000 at their game the other day, I don't know, there's a handful, I'm not sure, Michigan if they played at home I guess, whatever. But I'm just saying this place is a very special place.
This is a place where you can play great football with great kids, as teammates, and get a fantastic degree. You can play in front of a 100,000 people. You can play on national TV. You can play where you're going to be at practice‑‑ every NFL team has been in here to scout our players already this year. So you're going to have exposure to that. You are going to play for a coaching staff that has NFL experience, National Championship experience.
So you know, who is to say? Okay, the numbers, the numbers are not equal to the other teams out there. We understand that. As a staff we have to do a great job of understanding that. But at the end of the day, you know, I've been very, very.
Impressed with the fact that people really, really enjoy being recruited by us, coming to the games here. I'm talking about prospects, coming to the games here, watching us play. And being around these guys, when they come down the locker room after the game.
So is it going to be hard? Yeah. Recruiting's hard. Recruiting's hard. But at the end of the day, I think there's a lot of good stuff.
Q. You mentioned before the season that Belton was a guy that you would like to see get 20 to 25 carries a game; once he's fully recovered, is that still the plan or is it strictly a committee approach now?
COACH O'BRIEN: I think that's changed a little bit. I think that‑‑ and I did at the beginning, I said that. But we have got some good guys back there, and they all‑‑ it's really a competitive in practice.
So I would say it's more like‑‑ if it's Billy's, Zwinak, Zordich, Dukes, Derek Day, whoever it is, maybe it's more like 12 to 15 carries per game, you know what I mean. We ran the ball 52 times in the Illinois game, so nobody is going to really carry it 52 times for us. Nobody is going to carry it 30 times for us. It's more about that ten to 15 carry range, probably right now. Things change as the season goes on.
Q. Going off that, Belton made the switch to running back earlier in the season, and then had the injury. Were there any setbacks or has he stayed on the road you want him as a running back?
COACH O'BRIEN: You know, he worked hard, he hurt his ankle in the Ohio game and he's worked extremely hard to get back and he's back. And he had 16 carries the other day for I think about 70 yards. Thought he made some good runs. Thought he made some runs that we need to improve on.
He's a guy that can really have a big effect on the game and he's got great feet and he's got good speed and he can catch the ball in the backfield. So as long as he stays healthy, he'll always be a part of our game plan.
Q. You mentioned a lot of points, the importance of people knowing their roles, guys understanding their roles. How much of that did you bring from New England or how much of that have you always had as a coach, and just what's the importance of having a team where everybody knows their role?
COACH O'BRIEN: Well, it's huge. And it's always been a part of my philosophy, even when I was playing. I wasn't a great player. I just loved to play and if they asked me to switch positions I would switch at a moments notice, just to help the team, whatever I could do to help the team, run down the kickoff team, whatever.
So it started with me as a player. When I went to Georgia Tech, and I played for‑‑ worked for George O'Leary. That was a billing part of what we did there; Maryland with Ralph Friedgen; and New England, that's what the deal is in New England and that's where I really saw what it would mean for a successful season. If you had guys that really understood their roles and embraced it like a Yancich, like a Hull, Ben Kline, Zordich, were not necessarily starters, but they went in there, Brandon Moseby‑Felder. They went in there and they accepted their role on special teams. Maybe they started some games, they backed up other games, but at the end of the day, they helped the team win.
That's all it's about is helping the teal win, being in that locker room after a win, that's what it's about. So I think these guys are starting to understand that and hopefully we can continue to get them to understand that.
Q. I know you're not the most Twitter‑savvy guy by there's a student whiteout being organized for the game; have they been talking been talking about that and how fired up do you think that gets them for the game?
COACH O'BRIEN: Well, I know, this, I don't know about the student whiteout but I do know this for the students. I'm asking the students to‑‑ this is a noon kickoff, and it is by far the biggest game for us this year to this point this year. We are playing a 5‑0 Northwestern team. We feel like we are doing some good things. We need all those students in the stands at noon for that kickoff.
These guys, they feed off of that. You know, the crowd noise, the student section, these guys feed off of that. So whether it's white out, this out, that out, I don't know; I just need them in, in the stands at noon going nuts for this football team, because you know, we have got to have a great home‑field advantage, and these guys really feed off of that.
Q. The turnover margin, what has been the key in that? After the first game obviously there were a couple turnovers but what have you been able to harp on practice and in games with not turning the ball over?
COACH O'BRIEN: Well, I think it's better to probably ask these guys about that. We emphasize it with the players all the time, whether it's on offense, ball security. We talk to our players all the time, when you carry the football on offense, you carry the hopes and dreams of the football team.
So we talk about it, we emphasize it with the throwing game, the running game, everything and then on defense, every single day, they are working on takeaways and strip drills, interception drills, tipped ball drills, whatever it is.
So I think it just a matter of emphasis, and the players have done an excellent job of going out there and doing it and hopefully we can continue that.
Q. How much of an impression do you think Mike Mauti and the other seniors, how much have they made on not just the younger guys on your team but future prospects?
COACH O'BRIEN: Again, you know, yeah, I think again it's not just one; it's this whole group of guys, how hard they play. I mean, I can tell you, I'm not going to mention names, but after the last couple games, I've gotten a lot of phone calls from non‑Penn State people telling me how much they enjoy watching this team play.
Look, again, I don't know what's going to happen this year. I'm not a genie. But people enjoy watching this team play because of the effort with which they play. They play, you know, like their hair is on fire every play.
So I think people really enjoy that, and that's because of the senior and the senior ‑‑ the junior and senior class that's a bunch of great kids that love to play football, love to practice, love to go to school at Penn State and play extremely hard.
Q. You've talked about, maybe used the term complementary football, I guess the other thing ‑‑ playing off the turnover question, return yards, getting turnovers, yards in the return game; talk about how that key, just besides blocking, tackling, etc., etc.?
COACH O'BRIEN: Yeah, these guys understand, we talk to them every week about complementary football and how we can feed off of each other. Really we didn't do as good of a job of that in the Illinois game. We had Mauti's interception return to the one‑yard line, came way with nothing. Really should have gone for a touchdown there to be honest with you. We didn't come away with any points there. I mean, that's not good complementary football.
We had other situations during the game where we did okay. You know, complementary football could mean, these guys, they get a three‑and‑out on defense, and then we force, you know, kind of an average punt. We take the ball and go score. I mean, complementary football could show up in a lot of different ways. We get a great kickoff return out to the 50‑yard line and take it in and score, that's complementary football and to two units on the team.
And then the defense goes out and stops them on three‑and‑out so, that would be complementary football on three units.
We talk to the guys about that all the time and showing them the tape on the whole team and showing them how it works so we continue to try to play complementary football.
Q. Any chance we see Pete Massaro this weekend and is Stephen Obeng healthy?
COACH O'BRIEN: Yeah, both those guys, they will be good to go, I mean, unless something happens. I mean, it's Tuesday, you know what I'm saying. Like you guys ‑‑ we have got like Tuesday, full‑pad practice today. Wednesday, shoulder pads ‑‑ Thursday, you know what I'm saying? So really we should have this press conference on Friday. So they seem like they are good to go for this week.