Eager Nittany Lions studying O'Brien's playbook
In recent years, Penn State's offense has been maligned as being more predictable than prodigious.
New coach Bill O'Brien is poised to change that. And so far, so good.
Several Nittany Lions said Wednesday and Thursday on spring practice teleconferences that the first-year coach's offense - much of which he deployed as the coordinator of the New England Patriots - contains a myriad of possibilities.
''It's a new offense, and whenever you go from one system to another, it's going to seem like a lot,'' senior wide receiver Justin Brown said. ''It's a lot more stuff than what we did, because the past playbook was a little more simple, but this one is a lot more creative.
''We can do a lot more things out of it.''
Some of those include short passes to receivers and running backs in space, allowing them to make the defense miss and turn them into long gains. It's music, of course, to fans' ears. After all, Penn State's faithful is looking for a little more pop on offense this season, especially after losing three of four to close last year's tumultuous season. In those three losses, the Nittany Lions averaged just 11.6 points.
''There are a lot more things happening in space,'' said safety Malcolm Willis, who was quick to credit his spring opposition. ''Devon Smith, Alex Kenney, Shawney Kersey, Brandon Moseby-Felder can make a move and take a 4- or 5-yard pass and take it 80 yards for a touchdown.''
Brown said not only are there different plays, there are more of them.
And more options.
''There are different things you can do out of it. There are more receiver sets, more ways to get us the ball,'' he said. ''You'll see pretty soon how we can get the receivers the ball.''
Another difference from years past is the expected utilization of the tight end. More than perhaps anything else, O'Brien's offense at New England last year was known for its emphasis on the tight end. After all, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski combined for 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns as New England won both a division and a conference title.
To further emphasize, O'Brien said during Penn State's spring news conference last week that the tight end position is ''a very important part of what we're going to do offensively.''
While he won't have a Hernandez or Gronkowski, clearly, O'Brien has communicated to his new tight ends what is expected.
''I'm really excited about the offense,'' tight end Garry Gilliam said. ''It's obviously a lot different. There are a lot of new things we didn't do before. The tight end has a big role. I'm excited about what it has in store for us.''
It's more, of course, than just blocking or releasing from the line of scrimmage and running down the seam like Penn State tight ends have in the past.
''We run a lot more routes. It's a little more thinking, reading defensive coverages, changing routes,'' said Gilliam, who has just one catch in his Penn State career. ''We're involved in pretty much everything. It's kind of like learning a new language. We have to learn what he wants us to do. Each day, we're learning new things.
''It's going to take a little bit of time.''
That's to be expected. Keep in mind, Penn State finished ninth in the Big Ten in passing last season.
''You know, one of the things about the tight end position in our offense is that second to the quarterback, it's really the hardest position to learn,'' O'Brien said, ''because we do so many different things with them.''
Even the offensive linemen have had to adjust to changes. Center Matt Stankiewitch, in fact, has been studying different terminologies and techniques all spring. To help with the process, the Nittany Lions have been in the film room ... a lot.
''We've been watching some tape of the Patriots, watching their offense and offensive linemen,'' Stankiewitch said. ''They're great guys to watch. Watching them is watching exactly what you should do.
''It's a great, great learning experience.''