"These kids have to go to class. That's their first priority."
When Bill O'Brien said those words, it only served to further confirm what we thought we knew about the man who's been at the helm of our beloved Penn State for two and a half months now: Change is good, but so is tradition. And although some might have looked to his press conference, which officially marked the start of Penn State's spring practice schedule, in search of juicy nuggets about the team's makeup, others surely sought more evidence that he truly was the right man for the Penn State job.
Earlier this afternoon, both got what they wanted.
In terms of player news, the day started with two bombshells. First, it came to light that drugs had been found in the apartment that junior wide receiver Devon Smith and the now-graduated Jack Crawford share. No charges have yet been filed, and O'Brien declined to comment on the matter when it was brought up in the press conference.
The second was of a much smaller magnitude: junior wide receiver Curtis Drake has been transitioned to the defensive backfield, where he's expected to help provide some much-needed depth following the graduation of all four of Penn State's starters in the secondary. Drake, who will switch uniform numbers from #7 to #2, will play at the "field corner" throughout the spring, O'Brien said, and although he pointed out this time as one for "experimentation," O'Brien said that Drake was a natural fit at corner, though that the impetus for the move was because "we don't have enough players" at the position.
On that note, another bit of positive news becomes a bit more important: O'Brien said that cornerback Derrick Thomas, who's spent his entire college career in and out of Joe Paterno's doghouse, "will be in spring practice," despite rumblings that off-field issues had Thomas once again in hot water.
One player who won't be with the team this spring, however, is Curtis Dukes, who was expected to take a big step forward as Silas Redd's primary backup. Dukes is not with the team this semester so he can get his grades up--if all goes well, O'Brien said he expected him back by the summer. But in his stead, it's walk-on Derek Day who's getting the second team reps, as well as high expectations for Akeel Lynch, when he joins the team this summer.
But O'Brien spent more time talking about Penn State's quarterback situation--which he made clear was a "competition," not a "controversy." And, taking yet another cue from his predecessor, O'Brien laughed off a question which suggested that Matt McGloin was the incumbent starter.
It's an open competition, there's no starter, and there might not be a starter named until the night before the Ohio game," he said.
That "open competition" will involve all three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster now--and yes, that means Paul Jones has gotten his grades up. (O'Brien declined comment on potential transfer Danny O'Brien) "It seems to me like Paul has turned a corner academically," O'Brien said, adding that while Jones obviously hasn't received his report card yet for the semester, reports from the academic support staff have been positive.
"Each guy will get a chance to work with the first team," O'Brien said. "They all want to be coached, they want to get better."
The head coach, who said that he would be the primary play-caller for the offense this season, said that he hadn't watched any of the Penn State offensive game tape from last season, and wouldn't use that as a basis moving forward to decide which quarterback would lead the Nittany Lions in 2012.
Instead, he'd use observation from practices--of course--together with statistics. During every scrimmage, and every 7-on-7 the team will keep tabs on how the quarterbacks played. That way, O'Brien said "when we go to make a decision on who starts the football game, it'll be an educated decision and it'll be a fair decision."
O'Brien said that after quarterback, tight end was the second toughest position to learn in his offense, and although Penn State can boast neither a Rob Gronkowski nor an Aaron Hernandez--yet--don't expect a change in the core offensive concept. "We're gonna have two tight ends, at least one tight end, in there the majority of the time," O'Brien said. He said that he was very pleased with Garry Gilliam, Jesse James, Kevin Haplea, and Dakota Royer, and seemed optimistic that they could carry the load.
Another position that seems up for grabs is the offensive line, where, as O'Brien said, there's little returning experience beyond center Matt Stankiewitch. That will again be a position where the coaching staff looks to the spring practice as essential in its decision-making, but O'Brien was quick to point out that Adam Gress had a tremendous winter workout, noting that he "has already changed his body" into a prototypical offensive lineman.
Beyond that, O'Brien spoke more briefly on recruiting, ("I want a big, fast, physical football team here...and right now we're off to a good start, doing that.") defensive continuity ("I know that there's a lot of similarities...that's a staff that's met a lot, they've hit the ground running."), and his plans for announcing captains ("Right now, we'll have game captains each week, and name permanent captains before the last game.")
But he also spoke broadly about what he's learned about this school in just over two months of living out of a suitcase on the fifth floor of the Penn Stater--that its sense of community is largely centered around the football team.
"You can understand by the turnout today how important football is. It's a big part of the university," O'Brien said, and it was in that--and the entirety of his comments Monday--which further cemented that he knows what he's doing.