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Penn State Football: O'Brien Already Looking for Next Big Thing

by on March 19, 2013 12:30 PM

Maybe Bill O'Brien showed up at Penn State just in time for players like Kyle Carter, Allen Robinson, and Zach Zwinak to blossom into the exciting players that they are today. Or maybe O'Brien's coaching helped those players develop outstanding skills. Either way, all three entered the 2012 season with years of college football under their collective belts while living in the comfort of relative anonymity.

Each exited 2012 a household name.

Between the graduation Derek Moye, and the transfers of Justin Brown and Silas Redd, someone needed to step up. Carter, Robinson, and Zwinak represented a new era of Penn State football despite having been on the roster before O'Brien ever signed on the dotted line.

As Penn State battles the ongoing NCAA sanctions --mainly the scholarship restrictions -- finding the next Allen Robinson is key to the Nittany Lions' future success. Penn State's roster is likely not full of undiscovered All-Big Ten talent, but O'Brien having a firm grasp on his team's skills and abilities will go a long way towards winning down the road. It's all hands on deck for Penn State for the next several years and O'Brien knows it.

"Right after the season, we went out on the road and we were recruiting," O'Brien said. "But in addition to recruiting, what each coach was doing, when they had free time, which was really on the weekends or a dead time in recruiting, is they were evaluating their own players from the previous season."

Evaluation isn't unique to Penn State. Any program that wants to take full advantage of its personnel needs to constantly monitor how  the "proverbial pantry" is stocked. However for a detail oriented, overly organized, Brown educated O'Brien, it's a paramount aspect of Penn State's success. OBrien's assistant coaches are constantly working on fine-tuning the team.

"They went through and they watched film from every game again and they evaluated all the guys that are coming back for us this year. The players are briefed about those evaluations. "We have a little sheet that we draw up that basically, it's things they did well, things they did poorly and things they need to improve on," O'Brien said.

"When the guys get back from winter break, we go through that sheet with them so that those guys know whether it's something they can do in the weight room or conditioning, or when we start spring practice this afternoon, what they have to do to improve."

Sometimes finding that hidden gem doesn't mean improving your starters, it means giving unheralded names a shot at the big time.

"We had scrimmages towards the end of last year," O'Brien said. "We ran 100 play scrimmages with the redshirt players, the guys who don't play a lot on Saturday. We ran those scrimmages to see how these guys performed. I don't want to get into individual names, I think there are a lot of guys on both sides of the ball that we feel like have the potential to become really good football players for us."

The players you don't know yet aren't the only ones under O'Brien's watchful eye. Even All-Big Ten receiver Allen Robinson, who dramatically increased his production last season is under scrutiny.

"Spring practice is very much about fundamental football technique, individual technique," O'Brien said. "How can Allen Robinson improve the way they runs a comeback; or how can Adrian Amos improve the way he plays man coverage and so on and so forth down the line.  That's really part of the spring practice.  That's why we have a lot of individual periods in the beginning and then some team periods at the end, a little bit different than the season."

Key position players that had fewer than 200 yards receiving or rushing in 2012 

  • WR Trevor Williams- Name to watch in the receiver group. Not all that tall at 6-foot-1, but good hands and some quickness could see him making plays on the field this fall.
  • WR Matt Zanellato-Had some drops early in the season but the lanky sophomore made good strides later in the year.
  • WR Alex Kenney-The State College native has the speed and quickness to make people miss. If he has a good training camp this summer Kenney could become a early target out of the slot for Penn State's next signal caller.

Key position players that were redshirted in 2012

  • RB Akeel Lynch- Physical, quick, and a change of pace from Zach Zwinak. Bill O'Brien isn't one to hype players, but he has consistently had good things to say about Lynch. Has the speed that Zwinak lacks and added 20 pounds to his frame for a nice combo of power and quickness. O'Brien was tempted to play him out of the gate but opted to redshirt Lynch as Zwinak's ability became apparent.
  • WR Eugene Lewis- A key member of Penn State's "Dirty Show" practice squad, Lewis made the switch from QB to WR his freshman year. A great all-around athlete, Lewis will give O'Brien plenty of creative ways to use him this year.
  • DT Austin Johnson- Penn State was deep at DT last season and while O'Brien has plenty of good things to say about Johnson, this was simply a matter of not burning a year of talent.
  • LB Nyeem Wartman (Medical redshirt)- Showed promise early in the season with a blocked punt against Ohio. Missed all but two games with a knee injury. The fact Penn State wanted Wartman as a linebacker tells you all you need to know about his potential.

So who is the next hidden gem? We'll have to wait and see. But O'Brien is looking for him

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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