STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Surveying the throng of media waiting patiently at desks in front of him at Beaver Stadium, Bill O'Brien looked like a teacher on the first day of school.
"I'm going to do my class, start putting in some routes," Penn State's rookie head coach said with a grin Monday, sitting at a spot at the podium where his predecessor, the late Joe Paterno, held court just five months earlier.
With O'Brien now leading the way, the Nittany Lions opened spring practice Monday without Paterno as head coach for the first time in nearly a half-century.
There were signs of change around the football complex, for sure. Some more subtle than others.
A few players strolled on to the field with facial hair -- once a no-no under Paterno, especially in-season. Even staffers at times got a polite scolding from JoePa if they weren't clean shaven.
Reporters were allowed to watch almost an hour of practice on the first day of drills. Paterno rarely opened up practice, and when he did, access was usually limited to about 20 minutes.
And new signage adorned a weight room in the midst of a remodeling to accommodate more Olympic-style lifting and free weights. On display were words in big, blue and bold letters such as "FAMILY," "HARD WORK" and "PLAY FAST."
"Those are his words," strength coach Craig Fitzgerald said, "for our program."
The former offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, O'Brien promised to build the Penn State attack around the "core basics" of the Patriots' high-scoring offense.
One big difference: star quarterback Tom Brady isn't around to run the show anymore for O'Brien.
"There were no quarterback controversies in New England," he joked before acknowledging that he'd rather use the word "competition" than controversy.
Whatever the word, it's now a three-way race for the starting quarterback job with the offense getting an overhaul. Matt McGloin ended 2011 as the starter before sitting out the 30-14 loss to Houston in the TicketCity Bowl because of a concussion. Rob Bolden opened 2011 as starter but gradually lost playing time to McGloin before being inserted back into the lineup for the bowl.
The new entry is Paul Jones, a rising third-year sophomore who has been saddled with academic problems. O'Brien said Jones has been doing well in school this semester.
Bottom line: Don't expect a starter to be named any time soon.
"I'll be real clear -- it's an open competition. There's no starter and there won't be a starter named until possibly the night before the Ohio game," O'Brien said, referring to the season opener against the Bobcats on Sept. 1.
It's unclear if another quarterback might enter the fray by the fall. Former Maryland quarterback Danny O'Brien, who was granted his release from the Terrapins last month, was in attendance at Penn State spring practice wearing a blue Nittany Lions jacket.
A redshirt sophomore, Danny O'Brien was granted his release from the Terrapins last month after completing 150 of 266 passes for 1,648 yards with seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions last seasons. Bill O'Brien, who isn't related to the quarterback, declined comment when asked earlier Monday about Danny O'Brien, citing NCAA rules on talking about prospects.
But from the sideline, Danny O'Brien was able to watch the new Penn State coach finally mentor the offense. It wasn't pretty at times on a sunny day with a brisk wind blowing across the practice field, though it was just the first day.
"If I were you guys, I'd get back," Bill O'Brien told onlookers with a straight face before beginning sideline passing drills, "because I don't know where these throws are going."
Everyone starts with a clean slate, the coach said, especially on offense. So much so that O'Brien hasn't watched film of Penn State's offense the last couple seasons.
That might be a good thing, because the Nittany Lions weren't very good -- 11th in the 12-team Big Ten in scoring (19.3 points per game) and 10th in total offense (342 yards). O'Brien added that he didn't want to make any judgments about what was done in the past because he wasn't familiar with Penn State's prior offensive schemes or the last staff's coaching style.
"One of the things I wanted to do was start with a clean slate with these guys and just evaluate them in the winter conditioning and now into spring practice," he said. "To this point, I've been very pleased ... we'll start evaluating them on the football field this afternoon."
O'Brien plans to call the plays and primarily run the offense, while veteran defensive coordinator Ted Roof will call the defense. O'Brien plans to stick with a base four-down defensive scheme, similar to the one Paterno employed with much success, though "Linebacker U." will also shake up coverages with new wrinkles.
O'Brien, though, did watch some film of the Penn State defense from previous seasons.
Overall, the spring is about "mixing and matching," O'Brien said, likening the 15 March and April workouts to NFL minicamp.
"We'll probably be lucky to get a first down. We'll be lucky to gain an inch this spring," he said, speaking about the new-look offense going against the defense.
"But we'll see how it goes."