From the moment he arrived at the podium in Chicago, you could tell Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien was a bit more comfortable in front of the Big Ten media at the annual Big Ten media day event. This being his second go-around with the media scattered throughout the conference, including some familiar faces from the typical Penn State beat, O'Brien also did not have to face (as many) questions about NCAA sanctions and how he might try to save face for the program. While there are still challenges to combat and tough times to overcome, O'Brien's demeanor was calm and confident as he kept the focus on the 2013 season.
Here are the questions posed to O'Brien on Wednesday followed by his responses. I also added in my quick take after each.
Bill O'Brien: Excited to be here. This is my second Big Ten media day. It's always a sign that obviously the season is right around the corner.
And brought three players with us here for these two days. John Urschel is an offensive lineman for us. Malcolm Willis, safety for us. And Glenn Carson, middle linebacker for us. It's great to be with them.
It's good to see the other coaches in the league. I have a lot of respect for all the coaches in this league.
We have some really good coaches, and it's great to meet with them. We had a good meeting with Jim Delany, Commissioner Delany, this morning, and that's always — it's always good to reconnect with the coaches here.
Really excited about the season. We have a group of kids that have worked extremely hard in the offseason to try to improve their individual skill set and now we have to go out and have a productive training camp, but it's a great group of guys to work with.
Our staff is really excited about it, and I believe our first practice will be August 5th. So it's right around the bend and can't wait. So I guess I'll open it up to questions.
Nothing out of the ordinary here. O'Brien brought players he felt were the best example of Penn State on and off the field and mentioned the starting date for training camp. I feel I should point out once more that August 5 is now the deadline for any player under scholarship in 2012 has until this date to pursue a transfer to any other program without having to sit out a year as a result of NCAA sanctions against Penn State. As it stands now, it appears the team is pretty set and there is no word on any potential transfers to the best of my knowledge at this time.
Q. What about the prospects of starting a true freshman at quarterback in Hackenberg? Would that be really unusual?
I don’t think it’s unusual. We have two quarterbacks at Penn State this year that will compete for the starting job – Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg. Obviously we haven’t had a chance to work with Christian yet – not allowed to work with the guys in the summertime – and he just arrived here for our summer program. And Tyler, we worked with in the spring and he improved every day.
You know, one thing that’s really exciting about working with young quarterbacks is that you get a chance to really mold that quarterback. You get a chance to really teach that quarterback. And Charlie Fisher and I are going to do that and work hard at teaching our quarterbacks how to play in our offense and managing a game and play smart, tough Penn State football. We are excited about that. We are going to have to make a decision at some point during training camp to allow the starter to get enough reps to be ready for the Syracuse game. It sure is exciting for us, a challenge for us and we are looking forward to it.
Q. Ideally, when would you like to decide on who the starting quarterback will be?
I think you have to make a decision about halfway through training camp, I really do. I think in order to give that guy, whoever that guy will be, Tyler or Christian, in order to give him enough time to prepare for an excellent Syracuse team that throws a lot at you defensively, you have to give them a couple of weeks to get ready for the first game at the very least, especially a young quarterback.
Probably halfway through, we'll have enough evaluation of our practice film and all the different things that go into being the starting quarterback at Penn State, not only on the practice field but in the meeting room, and we'll make a good decision. We'll do what's best for the football team. Again, it's an exciting time for us. We look at the fact that we have a chance to work with two really talented young quarterbacks. So it's an exciting time for us at Penn State and one we're looking forward to when training camp starts.
Q. You said Tyler Ferguson will obviously compete for the starting job. He's not on campus right now, obviously. So what kind of setback is that, him not being a part of the summer workouts? And has he told you yet when he expects to be back on campus?
He'll be back. Summer's voluntary. Right? The last time I read the NCAA rule book, summer's voluntary. He's not there. He's at home. He's got some personal things that he's dealing with at home. To me, again, he'll come in. He'll be here for training camp.
What time, what day, all those things, I mean, I don't know. I am sure he'll be in the first team meeting and he'll be ready to compete with Christian for that job.
I touched on the quarterback situation earlier in the notebook, including a bulk of these quotes. Bottom line, there is no need to rush to a decision before getting a chance to see what Hackenberg can or cannot do with this team in practices. I have a feeling Hackenberg will eventually get the nod for the start of the season.
Q. Coach, now that you've had the job for over a year, do you feel that the challenges that have arisen because of the sanctions imposed, are those challenges what you expected?
When you go into a job like this, you always have to expect the unexpected, regardless of what has happened in the last year. Really, I'm here to talk about the 2013 team. You know, a lot of the things that we talked about last year, when I was here, it's water under the bridge. We're in a situation at Penn State right now that is unprecedented, sure. But at the same time I've said this over and over again, our staff, myself, we're thankful for our players.
Our players are tough. They're resilient. They're good kids. They're hardworking. They go to class, and we're looking forward to working with those guys. The rules are what they are. And that's what we play under. And that's what we're going to do. So we're excited about the season, and again just really want to concentrate on the 2013 season.
Nothing new here for those who follow Penn State on a more regular basis. O'Brien has talked about this a number of times this off-season, including during his bus tour in the spring. But remember that this is an opportunity for media outside of Pennsylvania to ask their questions as well.
Q. How do you see the loss of Brad Bars affecting your defense? And has he or will he apply for a medical redshirt?
First of all, one thing that we've instilled in our players I believe over the last 19, 20 months that I've been on the job is the phrase: Next man up. We knew when Brad went down there was guys that were in that defensive line room now had to move up because they potentially move up the depth chart. So we've learned that phrase at Penn State. So there's some guys there that need to step up.
Now, as far as Brad Bars is concerned, I was really — I felt bad for him, because here's a guy that probably hasn't been talked about enough. He's a fantastic student. He's a tough football player. He was not only a defensive end, a candidate for starting job for us at that position, but he was also a really good core special teams player. So next man up on special teams, too.
And more than likely, I don't want to speak for Brad, but I believe that he will come back for a fifth year and rehab the Achilles and he'll be back next year. So I would want a guy like that back because I believe he's a core type of guy. He's a Penn State guy. He's again just like John Urschel and a lot of the other guys on our football team, he's what a student-athlete really means.
It goes without saying right now that any injury to any player on the roster, especially those costing a player a season, is going to be detrimental to a certain extent for this Nittany Lions team. With 66 scholarships entering the fall, and just 64 on the field, depth and health are strong concerns. Fortunately it looks as though O'Brien is counting on having Bars back in the mix in 2014, so his career is not done yet. In the mean time it is on to the "next man up" mantra Penn State has embraced going back to last year.
Q. A related question regarding depth. How concerned are you with depth both along the defensive line and at linebacker?
Well, again, we're going to have to go into training camp and see how much some of our younger players have improved at those positions. Remember, if you look at linebacker in the spring, we didn't have Ben Kline in the spring. He was out with a shoulder operation. He'll be back for training camp. We're looking forward to seeing him. He stopped by the office the other day. He's had an excellent summer, looks in great shape, and he's ready to go. So we get him back. Gary Wooten, another guy that we felt was improving during the spring, can he add depth there.
Again, we've got to look at all the different players we have on defense as it relates to the linebacker position, what can a guy like Adrian Amos do? Can he play safety? Can he play corner? Can he play linebacker? Stephen Obeng, can he come down and play some linebacker for us.
Hold on. What? Amos or Obeng-Agyapong playing linebacker? I think this is O'Brien thinking a little too far outside the box in a sense, but this is also the coach who thought it might be a good idea to have a starting linebacker returning punts. Hey, O'Brien needs to use every player he can to maximize the effectiveness across the field. If that means putting some of his top players in the secondary a little more up front, then so be it. But I'm not sure we'll actually see this unless absolutely needed.
Back to you O'Brien…
I think our staff — I know our staff led by John Butler has done a really good job of really looking at that and being prepared for all the different scenarios. Defensive line-wise certainly Brad Bars not being there, again, gives us a little bit of a problem there depth-wise, but a guy like Evan Schwan, does he step up now, a younger player that maybe hasn't — obviously he redshirted last year, we don't know a lot about him as a player right now. He's a great kid. He's had a really good, hardworking summer. Is that a candidate to step up and take a Brad Bars type of spot there.
Are we concerned? I don't think we use the word "concerned" too much in our program. We just look for different ways to be able to relate to the different scenarios that may occur.
Q. When you take the field against Syracuse, Scott Shafer is going to be coaching his first game. What challenges do you remember from your first game last year and in what ways can that give you competitive advantage going up against the first-time head coach?
I don't know. I don't think too much is said about that. I think that Scott Shafer's an excellent coach. Watching them last year, how they played on defense, I think they're going to have a very good defensive football team back. And then again, watching them on offense, they're going to have a really good offensive football team back. First-year head coaches, first games, all those different things, everybody's different as to how they handle it. Obviously, if you look at my own situation last year, I certainly could have done a much better job on opening day than I did last year.
So, again, Coach Shafer is a great coach, and he's going to do a fantastic job at Syracuse.
O'Brien is friends with former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone as well. Marrone is now the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. More to the point, O'Brien's coaching career got off to a rough start, if you recall. Surely deep down inside O'Brien is hoping to give another new head coach the same kind of start.
Q. A year ago you came in without experience and there were all the sanctions talk, all that kind of stuff. Just how different is the feeling today compared to a year ago at this time for you?
Well, it's certainly different. I mean, last year I think we arrived here the day after obviously the penalties being announced, so I think we're in a better mood this year. But obviously you're a lot more comfortable with your position as a head football coach after having — it's only been a year, but you're more comfortable with the players, with the staff, knowing each other, the chemistry, all those different things that go into it. Again, does that lead to victories? Who knows. We're going to have to go out there and play extremely hard.
It's a very difficult schedule, non-league schedule to start the season, and then obviously a very Big Ten schedule. We really enjoy coaching our players. We have a lot of good players, tough players, hardworking guys, and we're just really excited about the season.
Again, nothing too new here for Penn State fans. A year behind him, O'Brien has accepted the fate (for the most part) and he is moving forward.
Q. Have you seen anything different out of Glenn Carson in this past offseason considering that he's a senior leader of those linebackers now that (Mike) Mauti and (Gerald) Hodges have gone their ways?
Glenn is certainly a guy you would describe as high-character guy, very intense, heart and soul type of guy. Glenn's not a real rah-rah guy. Glenn is very serious about his position as the middle linebacker at Penn State. He understands the tradition of linebackers at Penn State and obviously linebacker U. So he understands that. He was a leader last year. He's a leader right now, and we're looking forward to him having a really good year for us. He, again, is another guy that you would say as it relates to Penn State, he's what being a Penn State football player is all about. He's a good student. He's a tough kid. New Jersey High School state champion wrestler.
He means a lot to our football team, and we're certainly glad he's on our team.
Finally, a question about the anchor of the Penn State defense. Carson does not seem to get the attention past Penn State linebackers have gotten. Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges left their stamp on the defense and guys such as Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor and Sean Lee all left their marks in the Penn State record books. Meanwhile, Carson has been playing a role in the Penn State linebacker unit since his freshman season and has two seasons of starting experience already behind him. This season Carson looks to cement his place in Penn State lore and is embracing the role of defensive leader.
Q. Do you anticipate Kyle Carter and Zach Zwinak to do everything in training camp this year?
As far as health? Yes, I do, I anticipate both guys will be back for training camp, Kyle Carter obviously injured his wrist against Nebraska, so he's had a little bit more time to heal. Zach did his in the blue/white game, so he hasn't had as much time. So you'd probably say Kyle a little bit ahead of Zach in that department.
But both guys will be ready during training camp, Kyle right at the beginning, and Zach will participate, but he may not be full contact right away.
I touched on this in a previous Big Ten Media Day notebook post. Again, it is good news to hear two key players in Penn State's offense will be available for camp in a couple of weeks, even if Zwinak may not be participating in full contact drills right away. This is obviously the smart move with health a huge concern for O'Brien and his staff.
So there you have it. This is what O'Brien had to say during his formal press conference.If you have any reaction to any of O'Brien's responses, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.