Big Ten Football Previews: Penn State


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Joe Paterno had 61 years of experience as a college coach, but he never led the charge of an NFL team.

Bill O’Brien has. After 13 years of coaching at Brown, Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Duke, O’Brien spent five years with the New England Patriots.

And now he’s stepped up into the grueling — some would argue impossible — role of picking up the spangled pieces of the Penn State football program and trying to salvage a little bit of success.

His NFL experience will help with that.

O’Brien’s arrival in State College brought a lot of Patriots’ film and a new, more complex offense to Penn State. He’s left his players in awe.

He said he saw “a lot of white eyes” from his players when he first flipped on the projector, but he quickly reminded them not to watch the plays from a fan’s point of view.

“I shut the clicker off … and I said: ‘Look, guys, we’re looking at the schemes here. Don’t worry that that’s Tom Brady and don’t worry that that’s Wes Welker and Gronkowski,’” O’Brien said. “What we’re trying to do there is put in the foundation of what we did in New England.”

Nittany Lion right guard John Urschel said he thinks Penn State’s offense under O’Brien will be better than it was last season. The junior called O’Brien’s mentor, Bill Belichick, an “offensive mastermind,” and said the new head coach isn’t far off.

Urschel and the rest of the offensive line met every week during the off-season to watch Patriots’ film, more than the line ever met in the past.

Despite changing to an entirely new offense, Urschel said the change isn’t hard when it’s led by O’Brien.

“I don’t think we could compare our offense now to any one else right now. It’s a whole new ball game,” defensive lineman Jordan Hill said. “[The offense] can do so much; they can have little and do so much … It seems like they have endless numbers of options.”

Hill said his team’s new offense is “without a doubt more involved and complex” than every other offense in the Big Ten.

“Sometimes I think we have a play broken down, and then somebody just appears off the sideline,” Hill said as he chuckled. “I remember one time I came off the field and I said: ‘He came off the sideline, didn’t he? He came right off the sideline to catch the ball real quick. I swear he wasn’t out there.’ ”

The other side of the ball has also been watching some Patriots’ film, even though O’Brien was exclusively an offensive coach in New England. Nittany Lions defensive-line coach Larry Johnson is fond of the Patriots’ line and is trying to implement those schemes in the collegiate level.

O’Brien played defense in college as a defensive end and linebacker at Brown, but is mostly known for his offensive mind, including his standing as Brady’s quarterback coach from 2009-10.

“It’s clear that his knowledge of football is really good, all around,” Hill said. “No matter what position you’re at, he knows it to the tee.”

The Nittany Lion players say any college team would be happy to have O’Brien wearing the headset, but in the wake of devastating sanctions in response to the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal, O’Brien bears the cross of State College well.

Penn State needs someone to focus on football, to spend hours in the film room and even more time perfecting every play on the field. And that’s O’Brien.

“In a time like this, what we really need is a strong leader like O’Brien, a guy who is just straight up, he’s honest with us and with everyone,” Urschel said. “He’s someone who can really be the core of this program.”

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