There has certainly been a different atmosphere surrounding Penn State’s 2012 spring practice compared to any other that I can remember. Under Joe Paterno, dribs and drabs of information would trickle out, mostly about position changes and injury reports, and we were usually left trying to interpret Joe’s almost always cryptic comments about his team. (Example: “They have a chance to be a pretty good football team.” Translation: “We’re not close to being able to do anything.”)
Bill O’Brien’s camp, on the other hand, has been much more open and accessible, leading to a tremendous amount of mostly very good analysis, on this site and many others, of what coach O’Brien and his staff are planning for the new season.
There also seems to be a growing sense of anticipation about the upcoming Blue-White game, especially in the sense that O’Brien is taking the game very seriously and therefore his players will be also. How much about the new offenses and defenses will be revealed? Who’s taking the most snaps at quarterback? Who’s playing where and how much? What recruits are on the sidelines? And so on. I can’t wait to find all of that out.
So things are very different, but PSU still has the same players, so will any of this change make a difference in the fall? It might, actually, make a tremendous difference.
Take the offensive line, for example. Doesn’t it always seem like Penn State is replacing three or four of these guys every year? And every year they have to learn to jell together, and all of that, to slowly become a good unit. That probably was in large part because Joe’s staff liked to stick with more experienced guys, mostly seniors, at those positions, and of course those seniors graduate and have to be replaced every year.
O’Brien doesn’t seem to think that way. All jobs are open, and we are more than likely going to see younger guys mixing in all those spots. The result will be more competition and more continuity from season to season.
Tight end will be another example. Penn State has a history of great tight ends, from Ted Kwalick through Kyle Brady, but recently the position has mostly disappeared from the PSU offense. That may have been because of the spread HD offense, or other factors such as injuries, but I don’t think it was because of lack of talent. Penn State has players there, Kevin Haplea, Garry Gilliam, Jesse James, and I haven’t heard O’Brien back off even a little bit about making the tight end a big part of the offense in 2012. That has to tell us something.
And the heavy, new emphasis on strength and conditioning is encouraging. Penn State has always been difficult to play against in the fourth quarter; you had to play PSU to the bitter end and no lead was safe (see 1993 PSU 38, Michigan State 37 for an example of that). Not so much lately, though, and teams have been beating the Lions down the stretch or holding on to slim leads. Looks like Penn State plans to change that.
Finally, a few thoughts about the quarterbacks. Chuck Burkhart never lost a game as Penn State’s quarterback, and I don’t think he could throw the ball 50 yards if you allowed him two bounces. (And, yes, you had to have a passing game to be successful then as well as now.) PSU doesn’t need a superstar, but someone who can avoid mistakes, make consistent throws and good decisions.
Oh, and about Danny O’Brien. He came to check out a PSU practice, and of course his competition at quarterback, and the next day announced his decision to go to Wisconsin. I wonder if there is anything we can infer from that.
So the vibrations are good. At this point, Joe would probably have said, “We’re mixing guys in and out. I don’t know, it’s hard to tell what we’ve got.” (Translation: “We’re going to show up ready to play football.”)