Penn State curtails physical practice this spring
Practicing cautiously and practicing efficiently have not been mutually exclusive concepts this spring at Penn State.
At least that is the contention of Bill O'Brien.
The second-year coach has had little choice but to limit the amount of contact during spring practice, which concludes Saturday with the annual Blue-White game.
Penn State is dealing with scholarship restrictions because of NCAA sanctions and a disconcerting lack of depth at linebacker, the program's signature position, as well as some other areas.
The Nittany Lions have tackled this spring, but they have limited that kind of contact to once a week. Keeping players healthy is paramount to developing replacements for departed starters such as quarterback Matt McGloin and linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges.
“I've certainly noticed that we're having less contact,” starting right guard John Urschel said. “Honestly, for offensive linemen, whether it's a live drill where guys are tackling or whether it's a drill where guys are just tracking, we block the same regardless. I'm sure if you ask some of the running backs, some of the receivers, they'll tell you different.”
Depth issues at running back are one reason O'Brien has scaled back contact.
O'Brien lauded how Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch have practiced. All, he said, will play in the fall even though Zwinak had a breakout season in 2012 when the redshirt junior rushed for 1,000 yards.
The three, however, are Penn State's only scholarship players who are practicing exclusively at tailback. Linebacker is another position where an injury or two could seriously compromise the Nittany Lions.
There are enough questions behind starters Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman that O'Brien twice has said incoming freshman Brandon Bell is among those who will be looked at to provide depth in 2013.
Roster shortages that are a result of NCAA probation — Penn State is not allowed to have more than 75 players on scholarship, 10 less than the maximum — is another reason why O'Brien has applied his NFL background to spring practice.
NFL teams rarely tackle, even during training camp, and Penn State has emulated the kind of practices that take place at, for example, the Steelers' South Side headquarters. The Steelers don't hit during 11-on-11 drills, but defensive players are expected to be in good tackling position without taking down a ball-carrier.
O'Brien has tried to strike a balance between the need for college players to work on fundamentals such as tackling and minimizing injury risks, with the Aug. 31 season opener against Syracuse more than four months away.
“You can get a ton of work in without tackling,” said O'Brien, an assistant coach for five seasons with the Patriots. “We don't want guys diving to make tackles or diving to break up passes. We want guys playing on their feet and moving their feet to get in position to make a tackle. That's how a high-quality football player practices.”
Contact is about the only thing O'Brien has limited this spring.
He has added to an already complex offense because Penn State opponents have tape of what the Nittany Lions did in O'Brien's first season as a head coach. Player familiarity with the offense that was new a year ago has allowed O'Brien to expand his repertoire.
“We are miles ahead of where we were last year,” said starting right tackle Adam Gress, a West Mifflin graduate. “We're already running things that we hadn't instilled in (preseason) camp last year.”