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Penn State Football: Honest, Upfront Approach by Coaching Staff is Playing Key Role in Team's Development

by on October 03, 2012 8:40 AM

The first conversation Mike Mauti ever had with Bill O’Brien occurred at the first squad meeting in early January, the weekend he was hired to permanently succeed Joe Paterno. Here was a coach imported from the New England Patriots who would need to make a lot of important football decisions from a personnel and philosophical standpoint over the next few weeks, and the senior linebacker approached O’Brien after the meeting to inquire about, as O’Brien’s memory recalled Tuesday, the future of the strength and conditioning program.

The transition from the HIT-style strength training used by the former regime headed by John Thomas and the current Olympic-style training used by first-year strength coach Craig Fitzgerald was a headliner in the winter, when media, for the first time in forever, were allowed to watch a 5 a.m. conditioning session. Other notable changes leaked out bit by bit since O’Brien was hired: two fundamentally different offensive and defensive philosophies from the past, a greater emphasis on competition, with the new Lift for Life format being proof, the presence of NFL scouts at practice, loud music blaring on the practice field, skin-tight compression suits worn on Friday nights to aid blood circulation and recovery after a week of practice, staff changes, both on the field and on the support side in the Lasch Football Building.

But there’s been another far less publicized change within the program that goes hand-in-hand with O’Brien’s coaching philosophy of open, honest communication and getting every person associated with Penn State football to understand his/her role within the organization. O’Brien lived it during his playing days at Brown, always willing to change positions or contribute on special teams. He watched Georgia Tech’s George O’Leary and Maryland’s Ralph Friedgen have a similar policy. And of course, it was a hallmark of how Bill Belichick ran the show in New England.

“That's where I really saw what it would mean for a successful season,” O’Brien said.

“One of the biggest things that has changed that perhaps the outside world doesn’t see is how transparent everything is in our program,” offensive guard John Urschel said. “The coaches have done a great job communicating with us and the open lines of communication with us to talk to us. There’s never any mystery of us with the team.”

Added Urschel: “When a coaching staff is very honest and up front, it builds trust, and the team performs better when the entire team has the utmost trust in the coaching staff.”

There’s a phrase the sports commentators, the scribes, the fans and even some in the coaching profession throw around quite frequently called ‘maximizing talent.’ It sounds like a really good connotation for better coaching, and it’s an easy way to explain why Matt McGloin, Allen Robinson, Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman, Zach Zwinak, Mike Hull and those on down the line are playing at such an accelerated rate compared to previous seasons.

O’Brien was asked Tuesday on how he evaluates such a nominal aspect of the game. His answer was open, long and covered two main areas:

1. Charting progress in the weight room and projecting what a player’s numbers will be in areas such as lift, run, explosion-type drills and plyometrics.

2. The more challenging task of measuring instincts and communication on the field.

“What we try to do is see the improvement of a guy,” O’Brien said. “OK, 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.”

McGloin is the obvious example. O’Brien named him the starting quarterback in June so that he could head to work in the summer knowing he would be taking the majority of the first-team reps and would have to maximize those reps in a new offense predicated on smarts and understanding defensive looks in order to get the offense into the correct play at the line of scrimmage.

He leads the Big Ten at just about the halfway point of the season in passing yards (1,217), passing yards per game (243.4), and his 10 touchdowns fall just one short of Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez’s league lead.

McGloin has not been shy about letting his feelings known regarding the improvement on offense. Last month, he said Robinson, who is near the top of the conference in all major statistical receiving categories, was never given the opportunity he deserved to play last year. Mauti made similar comments following the Sept. 22 win against Temple when he said fullback Mike Zordich was under utilized the previous three years.

“The most important thing is we’re being told the truth,” McGloin said following the Blue-White Game. “Coaches are being honest with us. And in the past, that really hasn’t happened too much.”

Penn State meets its first ranked opponent Saturday in Northwestern (noon kick, ESPN). O’Brien called it the toughest opponent the Nittany Lions will have faced to date. It will take more than McGloin and other senior leaders fans have come to expect to show up every week: Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill, Matt Stankiewitch. The difference in Penn State’s turnaround after an 0-2 start in large part is because of better performance from players who aren’t garnering much national or conference-wide attention: Lehman, Zwinak, Ben Kline, Mike Farrell, Jesse Della Valle, etc. Is that because of the open lines of communication and players buying into their roles? Is it because of the strength and conditioning program? Is it a little bit of both? Probably the best answer is the latter.

“I can just tell you that the coaches have been up front with us since Day 1 with what they’ve been doing and what they’ve been telling us,” Mauti said. “They expect the same with us. It’s a reciprocal relationship and really it’s all about executing what the coaches ask us to do and understanding the schemes.”

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Nate Mink covers Penn State football and news for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @MinkNate.
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