UNIVERSITY PARK - There's no question that Penn State coach Bill O'Brien will not be able to air it out with Penn State like he used to in New England.
And he's OK with that.
Since taking over for longtime coach Joe Paterno, O'Brien has been nothing but a great fit for the Nittany Lions. At this year's Penn State Media Day Thursday, the former play-caller for NFL superstar Tom Brady made it clear as to what his Nittany Lions must do in order to field a competitive football team: run the ball, stop the run and play solid special teams.
Sentinel photo by STEVE?MANUEL
Penn State football coach Bill O’Brien marches ahead of his team during Penn State’s media day practice on Thursday at University Park.?Penn State opens its season on Sept. 1 against Ohio University.
Two of those three keys for O'Brien were bit by the NCAA sanction bug. Star running back Silas Redd is gone. And All-Big Ten honorable mention Anthony Fera headed to Texas to take over its placekicking duties.
And with everything going on, O'Brien has been preaching the character of his football team.
"The morale's been excellent," he said. "These kids were ready to go."
O'Brien had to completely resell his football players on the traditions and the opportunity to play at Penn State. For the most part, he was able to keep the core.
"The common phrases are unity, one team, sticking together, commitment, education, 108,000, TV, a great weight room and a chance to develop as a player," he said.
The Super Bowl champion offensive coordinator has seen his share of talented teams. And that was mostly due to the fact that he was able to throw the ball. This year will be different - with Redd gone it might be very difficult - but O'Brien knows that the rushing game will lead to success.
With the loss of Redd, which wasn't a surprise to anyone, Penn State will give the reins to a pair of explosive running backs, along with a deep group of young guys. They may not have the stats that come with a big-time FBS tailback, but these kids can play.
Bill Belton, who most of us remember as a wide receiver and a wildcat back, has the chance to become the main focal point in the offense.
Earlier in spring practices, O'Brien split the team up by position, so Belton scampered to the receivers. O'Brien said, "Where are you going?" And from that point, Belton has been a running back.
"I love coach O'Brien," he said. "Whatever move he makes I'm all for it."
And that move is paying off. All indications show that Belton will be the feature back with Curtis Dukes carrying the heavy lifting. But don't forget true freshman Akeel Lynch and senior fullback Michael Zordich.
One of the biggest reasons for the running backs' success has been new running back coach Charles London. London was the offensive assistant with the Tennessee Titans under former Nittany Lion Mike Munchak. One thing London has been stressing is ball security. And in the afternoon practice, the running backs focused on that for multiple segments.
"Coach London stays on us everyday about ball security," Belton said. "That's definitely something we're working on together."
While Belton supplies the speed, Dukes will be the downhill runner for the Nittany Lions. Although his track times will show otherwise, he said he is a power runner.
Standing at 6-1 and weighing a hefty 245 pounds, Dukes shouldn't have a problem moving the pile.
"Power. Delivering the blow," Dukes said of his running style. "It will make it easier for us if we can run downhill."
The next area Penn State will have to be solid at is stopping the run. And put it this way, Penn State will stop the run.
The Nittany Lions had no significant transfers from a year ago on defense. Sure, they lost Devon Still and Jack Crawford, that will hurt. But everyone else is back.
The front four for Penn State is once again stout. Jordan Hill and DaQuan Jones lead a group of fundamental, tough guys for the 2012 season. And a duo of ends, Pete Massaro and Sean Stanley, make this for a tough group to run against.
"You have a lot of guys that we can play up front," O'Brien said. "So I feel that is really the strength of our football team with the linebackers."
The special teams may be the Achilles heel of this program. Fera had a huge leg and that will be missed. The new placekicker will be Sam Ficken. He was among four true freshman who debuted last season. He has experience with a successful 43-yard field goal against Eastern Michigan last season.
"So far in practice (he) has kicked the ball consistently and done a good job there," O'Brien said. "As far as the people around them, the coverage teams and return teams, I feel good about these guys that are in those roles, accepting those roles."
As far as starters playing on special teams, if indications hold true from practice, guys like Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti will be fill some of those spots.
Penn State's first four games will feature three teams that qualified for bowls games a year ago. And you never know what you're going to get from Navy. That will conclude the non-conference schedule. Penn State opens the Big Ten slate with a trip to Champaign, Ill. to face the Illini.