Monday, August 6, 2012
Penn State notebook: Practice begins
By Josh Moyer, ESPN RecruitingNation
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- After a sleepless night, Bill O'Brien stepped foot on Penn State's practice field early Monday morning, before the sun peeked over nearby Mount Nittany.
He told reporters he was anxious for his first preseason practice here. So, he arrived at 4:45 a.m. -- 15 minutes after the rest of his staff.
"They're going to be busting my chops," he said with a smile.
O'Brien's grin betrayed the difficult goal he's tasked with this season: Maintain a winning program in the face of unprecedented sanctions, which have taken a toll on a roster short on experience and long on question marks. Nine players -- including star tailback Silas Redd and starting wideout Justin Brown -- have transferred, leaving O'Brien with just one regular returning starter on offense in center Matt Stankiewitch.
"I know some guys left, but that's OK," O'Brien said after practice. "That's their individual decision. We respect that decision, but we're moving forward with this football team."
Transfers: O'Brien confirmed Monday morning that no incoming freshmen -- with the exception of defensive lineman Jamil Pollard -- had left the team. A new roster was released Monday morning, and no other transfers were reported.
The other players who transferred include quarterback Rob Bolden, offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki, linebacker Khairi Fortt, safety Tim Buckley, tight end Kevin Haplea, and kicker Anthony Fera.
Only four of those transfers (Fortt, Fera, Brown, Redd) were expected to see considerable playing time this season.
Early Hiccups: Matt McGloin, Paul Jones and Shane McGregor rotated in and out during drills. And, in about 25 plays the media viewed, four interceptions were tossed.
Jones scurried out of the pocket on some plays to throw on the run, and the quarterbacks could be seen progressing through their reads. Short routes were the favorites, and it was easy to see the New England Patriots' influence on the check-down throws. The media didn't get to see too many deep passes.
Throws over the middle were often deflected or intercepted.
"There were some ugly plays out there," O'Brien said, "but there were also some really good plays."
Time to Shine: Sophomore Bill Belton will replace Redd and be the featured running back this season, beating out redshirt junior Curtis Dukes, who averaged 5.8 yards per carry on 41 carries last season.
Belton looked sharp hitting the holes, and O'Brien said it was one of his best practices. Dukes is a bruising runner, while Belton is a quick and agile athlete who could also see some throws out of the backfield.
"It's Billy Belton's time to shine," O'Brien said. "He came out here ready to go, and I expect him to do that every day. Again, he's a good football player -- and he was going to play this year."
Secondary depth a primary problem: Safety Jake Fagnano was nursing a sore hamstring, so Adrian Amos played a little safety and cornerback. A serious injury in the already-shallow secondary could wreak havoc on Penn State's defense -- and the secondary was the one spot O'Brien admitted needed a few more bodies.
"We're a little thin right now," he added.
Understanding the sanctions: O'Brien mentioned, several times, how Penn State's players and coaches understood why the team received such heavy penalties. He said it was a new era for Penn State football, and told reporters the team would be making an effort to work with children.
"It's really important that people know that we understand why we're here, and we're going to show that," O'Brien said. "Once we get into the season and school starts, you'll see us reaching out to children, showing how much we care about children. We got a bunch of dads on this staff, we got a bunch of kids here that a lot of pride in playing for Penn State -- and not just playing football. They have pride in going to school here, they have pride in reaching out to the community."
Uniform changes? No decision has yet been made on whether to change Penn State's uniform, O'Brien said. And it doesn't appear as if names on the back of jerseys are off the table yet, either.
"That's still under discussion," O'Brien said. "And if that does happen, I'll make sure I'll let you know why we do it."
A new Penn State: O'Brien was asked what Penn State stood for, and he didn't hesitate:
"I want Penn State to stand for, No. 1, the community. I want Penn State to stand for good students and the combination of being a student-athlete. I want Penn State to stand for, football wise, to stand for tough, smart football. I want Penn State to turn the page and move forward -- and understand why we are here. It's a new Penn State football program, and we do have some restrictions, but we know why they're there, and we're going to make sure we focus on that in addition to playing some tough football."