Sunday, March 25, 2012

Penn State football's first spring without Joe Paterno ...

... is Bill O'Brien's first opportunity to actually coach the Nittany Lions. There are plenty of key things PSU fans should look for during the next month

Here we go.

The Penn State football team will practice today, and Joe Paterno will not be there.

Paterno will not be calling the shots in Happy Valley for the first time in 46 years.

This is going to take some getting used to.

Bill O'Brien begins coaching Penn State football today, on the first day of spring practice. Which is as much of a milestone in the monumental transition from the Joe Paterno epoch as any, at least until the real games arrive in the fall.

It is the next phase of the beckoning O'Brien era, and it is a big phase. We'll have a much better feel for what PSU football will look like under O'Brien in a few weeks, when spring football is complete (the spring game is April 21), than we do now.

Spring practice is about establishing the program's identity: What the team will look like and play like when it takes the field in the fall. We know it will be different, but how?

Here are some of the most interesting and important items to look for in the next month:

It's about the quarterbacks, stupid: Matt McGloin, Rob Bolden, Paul Jones or "other?" Quarterbacks will be the focus of the spring: O'Brien cut his teeth as an offensive coach and made his name as Tom Freakin' Brady's position coach and offensive coordinator; Penn State's quarterback play was putrid last season. So, obviously, anything and everything pertaining to the QBs is a big deal this spring.

Which one will O'Brien favor? Which one will grasp O'Brien's offense fastest? Will Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien end up at PSU? Questions, questions, questions. Two things are certain: PSU fans hope Jones will step to the fore. And QBs will be the focus of the spring.

Coaching delineation and cohesion: You may know the names and histories of all these new coaches, but every coaching staff evolves and develops uniquely. Roles are defined, philosophies and personalities mesh - or clash. Penn State has many new coaches who all have been tossed together under O'Brien - a first time head coach. So the settling of the PSU coaching staff will be worth watching.

Most worth watching might be special teams and the Ted Roof-Larry Johnson Sr.-Ron Vanderlinden triumvirate. No one ever seemed quite sure who was coaching which components of special teams under the previous regime; how will O'Brien divvy up the duties? And Johnson (defensive line) and Vanderlinden (linebackers) were incredibly successful under previous defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. Can they achieve that same success under Roof and his different scheme? Or will the defensive dynamics change for the worse?

Filling in the gaps: PSU is losing more significant contributors from the previous season's team than usual. The entire starting secondary is - poof - gone. The Big Ten defensive player of the year also departed (DT Devon Still), along with a three-year starter at DE (Jack Crawford). Four of five OL starters are graduated. Star WR Derek Moye and veteran contributors FB Joe Suhey, LB Nate Stupar and RB Stephfon Green have completed their eligibility.

Who will take their place? There are plenty from the stellar 2010 recruiting class who have yet to make a significant impact. The opportunities are there for 2010-ers such as FB Zach Zwinak, DE CJ Olaniyan, OL Miles Dieffenbach, DT Evan Hailes, DL DaQuan Jones, TE Dakota Royer (recently moved from LB), TE Kevin Haplea and DE Kyle Baublitz. Also piercing the depth chart could be many 2011-ers such as RB Bill Belton (recently moved from WR), DE Deion Barnes, DE Anthony Zettel, OL Angelo Mangiro, OL Ryan Nowicki, LB Ben Kline and OL Donovan Smith, as well as a bevy of offensive lineman and defensive backs from any recruiting class.

With a new coach at both OL and DB, perhaps no one at those positions has an inside track on any starting job yet, though senior Matt Stankiewitch and junior John Urschel are likely starters on the offensive line, and junior Malcolm Willis and sophomore Adrian Amos will be expected to step up in the secondary. Injury-plagued Curtis Drake has been moved from WR to CB, but with WR Devon Smith possibly facing drug-related charges stemming from a police search of his apartment, Drake might be back at WR soon.

Who will emerge from the background to claim a primary role this spring? In the next four weeks several of the aforementioned players will catapult from minor to major status.

Access: For the media, much more than before. Which is a good thing for everyone. Not that the relatively inaccessible practices of the previous half century or so were necessarily a bad thing, but the openness is refreshing and gives the new regime a boost. And it fits O'Brien's personality and reflects his candor.

Injuries: Cross your fingers for no significant injuries and hope for the best.


The past several weeks have provided a telling, optimistic glimpse into how O'Brien and his staff will recruit, and into how O'Brien will represent PSU as the face of the football program.

The next four weeks will foretell how the product will look on the field.

Penn State football takes another big step today into the O'Brien era.

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