New era dawns at PSU

| Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012

UNIVERSITY PARK -- The sun had not yet risen Friday morning, but a new era had dawned at Penn State.

New football coach Bill O'Brien paced around the practice field as if there was a big game on the horizon. Dressed in a blue Penn State sweatshirt and a baseball cap, O'Brien gathered his team in the middle of the outdoor practice field at 5:30 a.m. With the temperature barely above freezing, the Nittany Lions wore winter hats as they worked through their conditioning practice.

And it was all there to be taken in.

Rare was the occurrence that Penn State invited media to attend a workout during Joe Paterno's nearly half-century as head coach. Practices were closed to the media, private affairs for team personnel only.

O'Brien has been on the job all of six weeks and already has stamped his own impression on the program.

Of course, that started with his players.

Wiping the sleep from their eyes in between occasional yawns, they clearly still were adjusting to their early-morning start times, which are 30 minutes earlier than under Paterno. O'Brien assured them that, after 90 minutes of conditioning practice, they would thank him later.

"Things have been great here for me at Penn State so far," he said following his team's workout. "I hit the ground running. I feel really ready (for) the challenge of being a head coach."

O'Brien rounded out his staff, confirming the hiring of quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher. The former Miami (Ohio) staff member and Vanderbilt passing game coordinator and receivers coach made a favorable impression on O'Brien, who commended the job Fisher did with Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

With his staff in place, O'Brien's full focus returned to his players. With the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and AC/DC music blaring through the speakers, the Lions went through speed, agility and strength-training exercises.

Strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald is a new addition to the Penn State staff, but he wasted no time mixing it up and getting in the players' faces.

"The offseason is also about becoming a better competitor, and we always try to find ways to do that," said Fitzgerald, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. "And these guys love it."

Players described the mood in the weight room and on the practice field as "chippy" all offseason.

Yesterday, they sprinted across the field, jumped over hurdles and rolled around on Fitzgerald's command. Fitzgerald's philosophy of using free weights and focusing on more speed training has transformed the Lions' weight room, which now is devoid of the previous machines.

The team has embraced the addition of "The Tug" drill at the end of practice.

Offensive and defensive players go head-to-head, holding a saucer and trying to drag their opponent five yards across the ground. Players were rowdy, shouting in each other's faces, as a healthy competition brewed well before the rest of Penn State's campus showed signs of life.

Not quick to make judgments about players he is still getting to know, O'Brien stuck by his guarantee that, come Sept. 1, his team will be ready.

"We've got a long way to go, but we've got a great group of guys here," he said. "They're working really hard, and we'll show up next year."

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