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Aug 27, 2013
COACH O'BRIEN: As we head into this week, let me start with an injury update.
As we see it right now, Deshawn Baker, a wide receiver, will be out. He'll return at some point this season, but he'll be out. Brad Bars is out for the season. Kasey Gaines has a hamstring issue right now, and he'll be limited in practice and won't play vs. Syracuse and Evan Galimberti, who's a freshman for us, is out right now. DaeSean Hamilton, a freshman wide receiver, is out right now, and he won't be back for a while.
Adam Gress is full participation and he'll be ready to go on Saturday. Ben Kline is full participation and should be ready to go for the game. Garth Lakitsky, a linebacker, will not be ready for the game. Brent Wilkerson will be out for a while. He's had surgery and will be out for a little while.
Other than that, I would say we've had the usual bumps and bruises, but basically that gives you an update on the injury front.
The only other thing I want to address up front is the quarterback situation. I feel like what I try to do every week, along with our staff, is do what's best for our football team, and, as of right now, you'll find out who the (starting) quarterback is on the first play of the game against Syracuse.
Believe me, I'm not trying to diminish the importance of that position and what it means to this football program and what it means to our fans, but I want to do what's best for our players and what's best for our football team, and so that's what I'm going to do on that.
Q. This situation is obviously different than last year with the quarterbacks. Is this because the two people involved are young players? Is that why you're holding off?
COACH O'BRIEN: I think that's part of it. You've got an 18 and a 19-year-old guy here. That's part of it. They basically just got to Penn State. Christian got here a little over a month ago and Tyler has only been in since January.
Last year we had a seasoned quarterback who had been through a lot here at Penn State, he was going into his fifth year, it was a totally different story last year.
Again, it's more about what's best for the team. The team understands the direction we're headed and that's what's important.
To me, it's important, going into a first game not really knowing what your opponent is going to do, and I don't really think they know what we're going to do. They're a very, very good opponent. I think it's important to do what's best for your football team, especially going into the first game.
Q. I was just wondering if I could get your observations and thoughts on preseason camp to date. With regard to has it been a lot different than last year's camp for you, and have you and your staff treated it differently because of the circumstances?
COACH O'BRIEN: I believe we had a very productive training camp. I believe our guys came back, and they understood the expectations, they understood the system on both sides of the ball and on special teams. We had a lot of returning players.
I believe we've got some strong leaders on this team that showed the young players the way. Did we have great days every day? No, but I don't think we had any bad days. We might have had a bad play here or there or a bad series here or there on both sides of the ball, but I don't believe we had any bad days. I believe we came out of it healthy, for the most part, which is very important, especially with our top players.
So I believe it was a productive training camp. At the end of the day the proof will be in the pudding how we play early in the season.
COACH O'BRIEN: I'd say the same answer there as compared to the quarterback. I'll give you the same answer there. You'll find out on Saturday who starts at safety for us.
Both guys are really good players and they'll both play for us. Malcolm is a leader back there. He's a guy that's played a lot of football for us, and he's come in here and, for the most part, been healthy and had a very good, productive training camp.
Ryan Keiser, he's kind of an unsung hero right now after training camp. He's a guy that does a lot of different things for us. He's involved in all four special teams -- actually, five, because he's our holder on PAT/field goal, and he does a really nice job of that, and he's going to play safety for us, too.
He's an improved football player and it was a great day last year when we were able to put him on scholarship because he’s a guy that really deserved it. He’s a Pennsylvania guy, another Pennsylvania guy that understands the meaning of playing at Penn State.
Q. Bill, what prompted you to reorganize the special teams coaching duties this year, and have you seen any benefits from that in camp?
COACH O'BRIEN: One thing that prompted that was John Butler being promoted to defensive coordinator -- he led the charge with our special teams last year.
Another thing that prompted it was that I just felt it was better for the kids to hear from two voices. I guess three, including me, actually, because I'm heavily involved in special teams.
I felt that having two main voices in Ron Vanderlinden and Charles London would consolidate the message a little more. Those guys were in charge of two special teams each, and they've done a nice job with that.
The players have really adapted to that well. Those were some of the things that prompted me to do that.
Q. You talked in the offseason a little bit about being a better coach yourself, improving yourself. Can you look back to this time last year, how do you think you are a better head coach heading into this season than your first season?
COACH O'BRIEN: This time last year was a blur. I was trying to do as good a job as I could with our staff to keep our team together and get them ready for the first game. Obviously, personally, I didn't do a good enough job in that first game because we didn't win.
Last year is last year and this is a new year. Hopefully, personally, I've done enough in the off-season to really study what we do, how we practice, how we lift weights, how we condition, how I call plays, what we're doing on defense and how to improve our special teams. Hopefully, you’ll see some improvements.
It starts with me, and it's not all about what I know. It's more about what the players know, and we've got great kids here that are a joy to coach. I love coaching these guys every single day.
Hopefully, we've taught them well, and they'll be ready to go on Saturday.
Q. You guys don't know who's going to start at quarterback for Syracuse, either, so how do you prepare for an unknown quarterback? And they have a new offensive coordinator, George McDonald. Do you know anything about him?
COACH O'BRIEN: It's one of the things that's a little nerve-racking going into the first game. You really don't know what to expect. You have to make sure that you cover all your bases as best you can, but you can't stay in the office until 4:30 in the morning trying to block ghosts and scheme for things that you don't really know exist.
You just have to go out there in practice and get your guys to understand base defense, base offense, and how we're going to react if different things come up during the game.
When you look at their two quarterbacks, whether it's Terrel Hunt or Drew Allen, from what we know, they are two different quarterbacks and you've got to be ready for two different styles of play.
I'm not going to get into how I see the difference in their styles, but we have to do a good job on defense of recognizing who's in the game and making sure that we're ready for what they are going to try to do.
Offensively, Syracuse runs the ball very well, and they have a very potent passing attack. If you look at last year's tape, they did an excellent job on offense.
George McDonald is a heck of a football coach. He's been a coach in the National Football League. He's been a coach, most recently, at the University of Miami. I have a lot of respect for George, and I know he's got a lot in store for us on Saturday. We just have to do a great job of playing with poise and adjusting on the fly.
Q. I wanted to talk a little bit about the five run-ons that you gave scholarships to yesterday. Just talk a little bit about how you actually deliver that news to them and what their reaction to that is. Also, going forward, does this complicate the roster management at all with having those players on scholarship?
COACH O'BRIEN: I would never do anything intentionally to complicate the roster management. So that's the answer to that.
I've watched these guys over a long period of time. Each guy has been on our team for a while. We don't just hand out (scholarships) like candy. You have to earn that scholarship, and these guys have earned it.
So what I did was I met with a couple of key people on our staff and talked to them about these guys that I felt deserved it, both on and off the field, for how they represent our team and how far they've come on the field. Regardless of whether they were starters, dirty show guys or special teams core players, I felt like it was important for us to reward these guys.
I brought them into my office for one-on-one meetings and I told each of them. They were very appreciative. They're all great kids. And then I announced it to the team that same day.
Again, it's always a fun experience to do that because these guys have earned it, and the team really enjoyed hearing that these guys had been awarded scholarships for this year.
Q. These kids have played in stadiums with a lot of history, I'm wondering is there anything specific or a different you hope they take away from playing in an NFL stadium? What do you think this could mean to them as opposed to playing in some of those historic college stadiums?
COACH O'BRIEN: As a program, it's important for a lot of things to be understood here. First of all, playing at MetLife Stadium means a lot to our fans. We have close to 40,000 alums in that area and we have 12 guys on our team from New Jersey.
I think playing in MetLife Stadium is just fantastic for Penn State fans. I'm hearing that it's not a sellout, yet, and I'm not in charge of selling tickets, but I hope it would be close to a sellout by Saturday. Penn State and Syracuse is a traditional rivalry that hasn't been played in a few years.
Our guys have to understand they’re going into a professional stadium and that technically there are some things that are a little bit different. The field markings are one thing. When you go into the pro stadium, you'll see the difference in the hash marks. You'll have the pro hash marks and then the wider college marks. You'll see the pro numbers and the wider college numbers that are just marked by white lines. That's important for our players to understand.
Other than that, it's important to know this is where the Super Bowl is going to be played at the end of the year. This is where the New York Jets and the New York Giants, two fantastic pro football franchises, play and that even though it's a brand new stadium, there have been some great games played here already.
I think it's a neat experience for our players, and I think it's great for everybody involved with Penn State.
Q. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your linebackers. Obviously, the depth doesn't seem to be there for the first time in a while. How are they coming along, and how do you feel about that corps going into Saturday?
COACH O'BRIEN: We feel good about our linebackers, starting with Mike Hull and Glenn Carson. Those two guys have played a lot of football for us, and they're very good players. They're multidimensional and they can do a lot of different things. They do a lot of different things for our football team both on and off the field. They're leaders and they're fantastic people.
Nyeem Wartman is somewhat of a newcomer, he played a little bit for us last year, but was injured in the first game. We think he has a very good future, and the future is now. It starts on Saturday. He's had a good camp, and we expect him to play well.
Then we have Ben Kline. Ben is a fantastic guy and is just a fun guy to coach. He’s a backup linebacker, a standout on special teams and a tough guy. He represents what the whole Penn State football program is about. Ben really represents that well.
We have some younger guys, Gary Wooten, who will be involved on special teams. We have Brandon Bell, who probably won't play in the game, but we think he has the ability to have a good future here. He's got to just keep coming along.
So there are some guys that will help us, but those three starters will be Hull, Carson, and Wartman.
Q. It's supposed to be kind of hot this weekend. There's depth concerns, obviously, for your team. How much of an issue or concern is that for you?
COACH O'BRIEN: Early in the season, that's an issue for both teams. One of the things you've seen recently around here, it's been pretty hot for the most part. Yesterday was hot and today's hot. It’s good to get out there and practice around the time we'll be playing the game. That’s important.
I think it's important the guys wear the right things when they play. Not to go into detail, but making sure they're wearing things that don't trap the sweat and they let their bodies breathe a little bit.
I think it's really important that we, as coaches, rotate players in where we can. Some of the positions we can rotate a little more freely than other positions, but we've got to do a good job of that as coaches.
I think early in the game, just like any first game, it's a big game being played in a venue like MetLife Stadium, everyone will be jacked up. Both sides of the ball will be pumped up. There will be a little bit of hyperventilating going on, and we've got to do a good job of calming these guys down and making sure we keep our poise on the sideline and get into the flow of the game quickly.
I don’t think (the heat) is a concern for us, but I think that's something that both sides are probably looking at.
Q. You talked last year about complementary football. Is there a renewed emphasis on all those components coming together on Saturday to take pressure off of the two young quarterbacks?
COACH O'BRIEN: It doesn't matter whether it's a young quarterback or a veteran, I have a strong belief that in order to be a successful team, you have to understand the definition of complementary football.
Football is a game of emotion. It's a game of momentum in many ways. One of the things we always talk about, especially during game week, is being able to play complementary football.
If the defense comes up with a big stop or a big turnover, offensively we have to turn it into points. If the offense turns the ball over, which hopefully we don't, our defense has to get out there and stop them. You're expected to go out there and stop them.
Special teams-wise, we drive the ball at the end of the half and we get in a position to kick the field goal, we have to go out there and execute the field goal. Everybody feeds off each other, and that's an important part of what we do as a team, no matter who the quarterback is.
Q. Bill, whichever quarterback it is, what can you as coaches do to mentally prepare them for that first drive? You know, just that neither of them have played in a Division I football game. What do you as coaches do to -- I guess, not that they're going to be starstruck with the environment, but what can you guys do to mentally prepare them?
COACH O'BRIEN: It's not just the quarterback position. Believe me, I get what you're driving at, but it's everybody. This is a big game. You're playing a game in MetLife Stadium. You've been waiting for this game for a long time, both teams.
What you try to do on both sides of the ball, you talk to these guys about how you're going to open the game. What's the strategy of how we're going to open the game? We really don't know what they're going to do. They don't know what we're going to do. So how are we going to open the game?
“We're going to open the game this way. We're going to make sure we follow the rules and do what we've been coached to do and help each other out.” We have to do a great job of communication. It will be loud. Whatever it is, verbal, hand signals, reading lips, whatever it is, we have to do a great job of communication.
So one of the things that we'll talk about constantly is the beginning of the game, how we're going to start the game, and, “hey, look, if the beginning of the game doesn't go very well, boy, there's a lot of game left. Don't go in the tank. Keep playing. Keep fighting.” That's what Penn State is all about. Hopefully, we understand that when the game rolls around, and we're ready to go.
Q. Bill, you highlighted some of the freshmen earlier. With Neiko Robinson, we've talked about him before, is he still here?
COACH O'BRIEN: Neiko is not here. Basically, what I'm going to tell you on that is what happened there is between Neiko and myself. Neiko is a fantastic kid. It had nothing to do with discipline, nothing. This kid is a fantastic kid. It just didn't work out here at Penn State.
He will end up somewhere, but he won't be at Penn State.
Q. Bill, obviously, there are a lot of other teams, not just you and Syracuse, that haven't named your starting quarterback yet. Nick Saban said the other day that putting out a depth chart is a chore and he only did it because the media made him to. What are your thoughts on the public's right to know about depth charts and positioning in quarterbacks?
COACH O'BRIEN: He makes me do it, that guy right there.
No, I think it's important. Look, the game of football is in many ways, obviously, for the players and the coaches, but it's for the fans. It's a spectator sport.
And I get that, and I love the Penn State fans. They're one of the best parts about this place, the student body, the fans, and really my dealings with the media here has been, for the most part, very, very good.
Again, I'm not trying to do it to bust anybody's chops. I want to do what's best for the football team right now, the 2013 football team, and I want to do what's best for the guys involved, and I want to do what's best for Penn State.
What's best for Penn State right now is for you to find out (about the quarterback) when we take the field for the first snap of offensive football against Syracuse.
Q. Bill, you touched on the big stage, being in New York. You guys had really gotten a lot of national run in the off-season with the way you finished last year. Do you see this as an extension, opportunity with the momentum that you could build, or do you just look at it as, hey, this is just the start of another season?
COACH O'BRIEN: It's definitely a new season, it's another season, but I do think, any time you play in New York City, you're on the big stage. It's on ABC. It's a big game. But, again, I think that everybody around here has to understand that 2012 is over. I know our players understand that.
So it's not so much building on momentum from last year, it's more about, “okay, what is this '13 team going to do?“ And now here we have an opportunity to go play in a great venue and hopefully do a great job for our fans and our supporters.
Q. Mark had mentioned the heat and the way you started out last year. Have you guys adjusted practice? Do you feel like the team has fresh legs going into this opener?
COACH O'BRIEN: I do. I believe we've done a better job of that this year. I really do. We've done a number of things to help that, and I don't want to get into the details of it, but I believe that we've done a better job of that this year.
Q. With the inexperience factor of Tyler and Christian, how much extra emphasis do you put on getting guys like Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, and Akeel Lynch in the game and relying on them, or do you expect that, whoever the quarterback is, to just kind of pick up where Matt (McGloin) left off last season?
COACH O'BRIEN: I don't compare anything to Matt. Just like I said to Neil, I don't compare anything to last season. I expect that it’s 2013, the quarterback goes in there, whoever the quarterback is, and plays well. There's a high standard of playing quarterback here. That's what the offense requires.
We'll be as balanced as we can be. We're going to really try to be balanced. We can't go into the game and think we're going to win throwing 60 balls, but if we have to throw 60 passes, that's what we have to do. If we have to run the ball 50 times, then that's what we have to do.
We can't go into the game and have our minds locked in on this is how it's going to go because, with first games, you really don't know what to expect. So we have to adjust during the game.
Whoever's the quarterback, whoever plays who's in there at quarterback is expected to play well.
Q. Bill, could you give your impressions of the kickoff and punt coverage and the return teams coming out of camp, and did you kind of extend the thud, stay on your feet philosophy, to that part of the practice?
COACH O'BRIEN: I did. I definitely did, but if you look at our kickoff coverage, our kickoff return team -- let's start with those.
I think our kickoff coverage team, for the most part, last year did a nice job. We had guys last year that really went down there and did a nice job. A couple of guys, like Mike Yancich, aren't there this year. So what we're looking for is we put some guys in those positions. Who's going to take that Mike Yancich type role and go down there and be a leader?
Overall, I like where we're at with the kickoff coverage. Kickoff return, we've changed things up a little bit. Obviously, I'm not going to get into that with you, but I feel pretty good about where we're at with the kickoff return right now. Again, the proof's in the pudding.
Punt team and punt return, we've worked extremely hard on those. Syracuse is a very, very good special teams unit on all four. We're not sure what to expect with their punt block and punt return unit. So we have to do a good job, just like in offense and defense, of following their rules.
I think Alex (Butterworth) is punting the ball pretty well right now. I’m hoping we don't have to punt too much. But if we do, I think we'll go out there and execute. I feel good about where we're at.
Punt return, again, we're doing some different things with the punt return and the punt block, and hopefully that shows up on Saturday.
Q. Coach, last year was an emotional game leading up to the first week. You mentioned composure and poise a couple of times. Have you sensed a difference in the team's demeanor going into this year's opening game even though it's in a major venue?
COACH O'BRIEN: Again, I don't compare anything to last year. I believe every team is different.
Right now I believe our team is preparing and doing the best they can to learn the game plan. They understand they're playing a great opponent, and they're looking forward to the challenge. Last year was last year, and this year is this year.
Q. As you saw Zach Zwinak improve throughout the course of last year, how much did he even surprise you with how well he did? And the fact that you have a young quarterback, how much of a comforting factor is it knowing that you've got an experienced running back back there?
COACH O'BRIEN: Judging by the fact that I had him as the third or fourth team running back at the beginning of the year, I would say that that's some bad coaching because I think, in about, whatever it was, 8 1/2 games, he gained 1,000 yards.
Zach's a tough guy. I love coaching Zach. He's very hard on himself. He demands perfection of himself. He's tough. He's a big guy. He can run. He's got deceptive speed, and you know, he can catch the ball. He loves playing at Penn State. Again, he's a big part of our team.
Q. Bill, Syracuse has two pretty decent running backs.
COACH O'BRIEN: Yeah, they do.
Q. Talk about the importance of stopping the run on Saturday and shutting them down, especially with a new quarterback for them.
COACH O'BRIEN: I think you go into every single game, no matter who you're playing -- really, no matter who you're playing -- you've got to be ready to stop the run.
If your defense isn't centered -- that's just my belief -- if your defense isn't centered on stopping the run, number one, then you're going to be in trouble.
Because this is Penn State. This is -- the history of Penn State says, No. 1, we're going to play as tough a defense as we can, and we're going to try to stop the run, and that's the way it goes.
To me, good defenses all over the place say the same thing. It's especially true with Syracuse because their two running backs are really, really good players -- tough guys, strong guys. They can run. They catch the ball well, and Syracuse does a real nice job with those two guys.
So it's going to be a tough chore, but, again, that's a big part of what we have to do.
Q. You mentioned Adam Gress is good to go, what does that do to the right tackle position? Is he still No. 1 on the depth chart, or is that a position we'll find out on Saturday?
COACH O'BRIEN: Yeah, that would be one of those things you'll find out on Saturday, but he'll play. Gress and Gary Gilliam will both play.