O'Brien optimistic this spring
If putting a football team together is like a puzzle, Penn State doesn't seem to have all the pieces right now.
Not by its own choosing, of course. Scholarship reductions were imposed by the NCAA as part of sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. By 2014, the Nittany Lions roster can't have more than 65 scholarship players - or roughly 20 fewer than the typical allotment.
The delicate, long-term process of finding quality newcomers to fill depth resumed in earnest Monday, when Bill O'Brien opened his second spring practice as Penn State coach.
Coaches will look at a few players to possibly play both offense and defense along the way. Walk-ons may have a bigger opportunity to play expanded roles - they're already called ''run-ons'' at Penn State because of the way they're expected to hustle on the practice field.
Plus, incoming freshmen could have a better chance to play early, especially at the skill positions.
''You bring these guys in and they're on full scholarship,'' O'Brien said Monday at Beaver Stadium before practice. ''Unless they're injured, then you're going to put them into the mix and let them compete, and you're going to play your best players.''
The competition started in earnest Monday on the turf of cavernous Holuba Hall, after a late-season snowstorm chased practice indoors.
Some competitions are more wide open, like at quarterback, where Steven Bench and junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson are splitting time getting first-team reps in the derby to replace record-setting starter Matt McGloin.
''Bench and Ferguson only,'' an assistant coach ordered during one drill open to media after a walk-on quarterback stepped forward thinking he was next to take a throw.
O'Brien has said he won't make a quarterback decision until preseason practice in August, though he did say Bench probably knows the offense better. But don't discount freshman and prized recruit Christian Hackenberg entirely. He'll join the team this summer.
''Certainly, he'll be in the mix,'' O'Brien said about Hackenberg. ''At every single position, we'll play the best players.''
While quarterback is relatively stocked, there are depth concerns at linebacker. Penn State lost standouts Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti from last year's team, plus backup Michael Yancich. Glenn Carson is back, and reserve Mike Hull seems primed to ascend to a leading role at Linebacker U. But another returning reserve, Ben Kline, will miss the spring following shoulder surgery.
O'Brien is also optimistic about Nyeem Wartman's potential on the outside. Wartman showed flashes of potential on special teams as a freshman early last season before being sidelined by injury.
Otherwise, walk-ons will have a prime opportunity to audition until the fall, when freshmen Brandon Bell and Zayd Issah join the team.
''It's not because of a lack of talent. But just based on numbers, there are some depth issues,'' O'Brien said. ''We'll be looking for (the freshmen) to come in here in the summertime and see what they can do. Can they help us on defense and most importantly, can they help us on special teams - that will be big.''
The further away one plays from the line of scrimmage, the more likely that player is likely to help sooner, O'Brien said. It may be more difficult for freshmen to break through on the offensive or defensive lines because they might not have the strength to contribute right away.
The coaching staff also plans to look at a few players who might be able to play both ways. For instance, Malik Golden has moved from receiver to defensive back, while Nate Cadogan has gone from offensive line to defensive line. Both players may split reps on both sides of the ball in the spring.
''Certainly there are other moves that may be made because we're going to do what's best for the football team,'' O'Brien said. ''If we think there's a guy who can help us on defense and still play offense because of the numbers that we have, we'll certainly look at doing that as the spring goes along.''
NOTES: O'Brien also said that starting safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (shoulder) will join tight end Kyle Carter (wrist) as non-contact holdouts in the spring. They otherwise looked fine in position drills on Monday ... Top tight end recruit Adam Breneman, who is already enrolled, will participate fully in spring drills but will be monitored closely since he's recovering from a right knee injury. Breneman wore a brace on the knee Monday ... Spring practice ends with the Blue-White game on April 20.