|Penn State heading into Year 2 under O’Brien|
|Friday, July 26, 2013 12:00 AM|
BY JAY COHEN
CHICAGO — Bill O’Brien thinks he can do a better job of managing the clock. He wants to improve his communication with his coaches in the press box. Then there are the adjustments for recruiting, practice and team meetings.
After a most unusual season, the Penn State coach is focused on putting everything he learned in Year 1 to good use.
“When you’ve never done it as a head coach, you’re definitely learning on the job, and I learned a lot in my first year,” O’Brien said Thursday at Big Ten media days.
O’Brien and the Nittany Lions enter this season in a much different spot than a year ago, when the former offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots was adapting to his new role with the school facing unprecedented sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
Just 6 1/2 months after he accepted the job, O’Brien found out he was looking at a 4-year bowl ban and steep scholarship cuts. Not exactly an ideal situation for a first-time head coach.
“A year ago, we had just found out about the sanctions, so that was a tough time,” O’Brien said. “That was a time when we had just received in many ways, as far as I’m concerned, some unexpected news. We knew there was something coming down the pipe. And then I’m coming to my first Big Ten media days as a head coach, on top of all that.
“I think we’ve learned a lot in a year. I believe we’ve improved. The years ahead aren’t going to be easy but we have a better handle on things.”
Considering the controversy swirling around the program, Penn State’s 8-4 record last season was one of the best coaching jobs in the country and O’Brien received several awards. The Nittany Lions dropped their first two games, then won five in a row. The offense developed into one of the most potent units in the conference.
But listen to the 43-year-old O’Brien for a while and it’s clear the Boston native expects more — from himself and his players.
“We want to be a tough, smart football team. We want good kids. We want to be able to play in all kinds of weather and all those different things,” O’Brien said. “I talk about that a lot, whether it’s recruiting or Xs and Os.”
That public emphasis on improvement is consistent with the coach the Nittany Lions see in practice and meetings.
“He’s the same guy but with any competitor and coach O’Brien is a competitor, he always feels like he needs to improve something,” safety Malcolm Willis said. “Just certain things like just different techniques that he’ll learn or things that he’ll watch on film that he picks up, you know he’ll inform the team and he’s always 100 percent honest with us.”
While there is an ongoing competition at quarterback and concerns at linebacker, there is still plenty for O’Brien to work with in his second season. Whoever wins the QB job gets to throw it to dynamic receiver Allen Robinson, who had a school-record 77 receptions for 1,013 yards last season. There are 16 returning starters in all and a total of 38 letterwinners coming back.
There will be no postseason again this year but that hasn’t dampened the expectations the Nittany Lions have for themselves.
“We have the same motivation that any football team in the country does,” senior guard John Urschel said. “We love each other. We’re a team. We want to do well for each other. We want to fight for each other and we want to win football games for each other, for our team, for our head coach and for our university.”
While O’Brien is more comfortable in his position than he was a year ago, it’s not as if the Sandusky scandal is completely behind the program.
The NCAA asked a Pennsylvania court on Tuesday to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the family of the late coach Joe Paterno that seeks to overturn the sanctions against Penn State. Some trustees, former players and coaches and current faculty members are also taking part in the same lawsuit, which the NCAA asserted was flawed.
The ongoing legal questions make for a tricky situation for O’Brien, who recently spoke with the university’s Board of Trustees about the NCAA penalties.
“When I’m asked questions, at times I’ll give my opinion,” he added. “But right now I’m so focused on the 2013 season, I don’t really care about those other things. I know my job is to go out here and do the best job I can to keep this team focused on training camp and Syracuse.”
Communication key for Nebraska’s Pelini: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has a message for potential football players: Put away your phones, tablets and computers and start practicing your communication skills.
Pelini said Thursday that the rapid rise of social media and other forms of communication have had a detrimental effect on the communication skills that are found more frequently in older generations.
“These kids, they’re in a different day and age,” he said. “Getting them to, obviously that goes to communication on the field, but I’m also talking about … building leaders and developing leaders and getting guys because to lead you’ve got to be able communicate. You can’t lead anything if you don’t have great communication and that isn’t natural to this generation.”
“If you had a problem with somebody, our generation just walked up and you confront somebody, you talk to them face to face. Now they send a text.”
The 45-year-old Pelini added communication on the field has become a major point of emphasis for the Cornhuskers: “We can’t harp on it enough to the point where, you can’t assume anything. You have to constantly enforce it and reinforce it and reinforce it again and demand it.”
A bad word: Kirk Ferentz is entering his 14th season at Iowa, making him the dean of Big Ten coaches. Even if he doesn’t care for the term.
“Never call a football coach a dean,” he said. “That’s a misnomer.”
Ferentz begins the year with a 100-74 record with the Hawkeyes, behind only Hayden Fry on the school victory list. Iowa is coming off a 4-8 season, including four losses by three points or less, and opens on Aug. 31 against Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois.
Ferentz explained his long run at the school is attributable to a couple of factors.
“I think it’s a reflection of two things,” he added. “I work with great people, day in and day out, and then I work at a place that’s sort of like the Pittsburgh Steelers. I think that traditionally our administration gets it and they understand there’s going to be highs and lows.”
Coaching tree: Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Jim Tressel never overruled him while he was the defensive coordinator at Ohio State and it’s important to him to give the same freedom to his coaches with the Spartans.
The way Tressel treated his assistants is something that sticks with Dantonio to this day.
“I try to do a lot of things like Tress in terms of how you treat people and things of that nature,” Dantonio said. “Again, I go back, you know what are my goals for our assistant coaches? It’s those relationships. It’s launching a career. Their graduation is when we go (to) a BCS game or a Rose Bowl or January 1 game or a championship game. That’s their graduation and then I help them launch their career.”
Season-ending slide: Illinois lost its last nine games last year, including a 50-14 loss at Northwestern to conclude the dismal 2-10 season.
For quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, it was quite the learning experience.
“Going through last year, you learned a lot,” he said, “not only about yourself on the field, but you learned about yourself just as from a character standpoint, from a leadership standpoint. I think leadership is really easy when things are going well and everything’s good but you don’t truly know yourself until you deal with some struggles and some hard stuff.”
Scheelhaase threw for 1,361 yards and four touchdowns last season with eight interceptions. He also rushed for 303 yards and four more TDs. He ranks fifth on the school’s career list with 7.091 yards of total offense and is sixth with 5,296 yards passing.
Illinois hired former Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit in January to serve as offensive coordinator and Scheelhaase is excited for the possibilities for his senior season.
“It’s been great working with coach Cubit,” he added. “He’s a guy that, you know his resume speaks for itself. He’s been around the game for a long time. I think that’s something that’s very important for us as players, just to understand that he knows what he’s talking about.”
Bouncing back: Year three has typically been the charm in previous stops for Minnesota coach Jerry Kill and Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood hopes that’s the case this season.
“Everybody’s saying the third year is when he goes nuts,” said Kirkwood, who ran for 926 yards on 218 carries with six rushing touchdowns in 2012. “I can see where he’s going because this team has become physically tougher, it’s become mentally tougher. We’re eliminating some of the mental mistakes that hurt us in a lot of big games. And it’s all because of Kill; he’s an excellent coach.”
The 51-year-old Kill was 10-2 in 2003, his third year at Southern Illinois, and went 10-3 at Northern Illinois in 2010 before accepting the Golden Gophers job. He was 3-9 in his inaugural Minnesota season and 6-7 last year.
Kirkwood enters his third season after starting 13 games as a sophomore and winning outstanding offensive player honors.
Hazell & Purdue: Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston said Darrell Hazell barely missed a beat as he settled in as the program’s 35th head coach after his hiring late last year.
“The adjustment really hasn’t been rough at all,” said Gaston, a 6-2 senior from Chicago. “He got everybody to buy into his system because he came in confident and knew he had a foundation and knew it would work to take us to the next level.”
Hazell, who succeeded the fired Danny Hope, moved over from Kent State where he went 11-3 last year, reached the GoDaddy.com Bowl and was Mid-American coach of the year.
Gaston had 19 solo tackles and nine assists along with two fumble recoveries for a Purdue team that went 6-7 overall. He’s pleased with how the defensive line has developed through spring and the approaching fall practices.