Big Ten media days brighter for PSU

CHICAGO – Football questions. One after another. In rapid-fire fashion from a horde of reporters, both national and the regulars on the Penn State beat.

Bill O’Brien and the Nittany Lion players loved it.

“It’s very refreshing,” O’Brien said. “I love to talk about football. … These are fun questions.”

There were occasional questions about the NCAA sanctions, too, but that wasn’t much of a focus for Penn State’s contingent at Big Ten media days. It could not have been more different than a year ago, when players such as John Urschel barely got a chance to talk football because all anyone was interested in was the sanctions, which had just come down three days earlier.

“We’ve moved on,” Urschel said. “And it’s good to see that the media is moving on with us.”

The lasting image of Big Ten media days a year ago for PSU was the stern, intense stare of linebacker Michael Mauti as he angrily answered questions about the sanctions. This year, the big smile Urschel wore all day Wednesday represented just how much weight has been taken off the players’ shoulders.

“I like it,” Urschel said. “It’s good. I’m getting football questions.”

And math questions, too, for the PSU whiz kid.

“Math questions I’ll take,” Urschel said. “Football questions, math questions, this has been an enjoyable Big Ten kickoff so far.”

Urschel, a senior guard, is representing Penn State at media days along with senior safety Malcolm Willis and senior linebacker Glenn Carson. O’Brien, during his opening news conference, mentioned that the PSU group is “obviously in a better mood this year.”

“We’re in a great mood,” Willis said. “As a cohesive unit, as a team, we’re really ready. We’re ready to get into camp and start practicing and just to do what we love again.

“You know, forget everything else, forget sanctions, forget media, forget what everybody else is saying. All we need is ourselves. All we need is each other in that locker room, and Aug. 31 comes (against Syracuse), it will show.”

There are many star players on hand from one of the nation’s premier conferences, but few players here command as much respect as Urschel, who was selected to deliver a speech to more than 1,700 people during this afternoon’s kickoff luncheon.

“It’s an honor. It’s very humbling,” said Urschel, who said his speech will focus on addressing the conference’s younger players. “It’s hard for me to even believe how far I’ve come.”

Urschel was referring to coming to Penn State as a two-star recruit and turning himself into an all-conference player. He’s been the focus of numerous national media outlets, which again indicates that people – in the sports world anyway – are concentrating more on football at Penn State and less on the scandal.

“What a fantastic kid,” O’Brien said of Urschel. “I think a lot has been made about his academic prowess, but I think again we have to be reminded here that he’s a hell of a football player. He’s a first-team all-Big Ten guard, which in this conference, that’s a big deal. And he’s got a chance to play pro football. He’s just as good a football player as he is a student.”

O’Brien joked that Urschel’s speech “looked like a lot of pages” when he was studying it on the plane.

“I was like, ‘John, you might want to cut that down,'” O’Brien said with a smile.

O’Brien had little reason to be smiling a year ago at this event, but after going 8-4 and winning numerous national coach of the year honors, it’s obvious by all the attention he’s receiving at media days how much his stock has risen. Aside from Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, there was more media interest Wednesday in O’Brien than any other head coach.

Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said O’Brien has been able to “energize and galvanize” the PSU football program, university and fan base.

“It was majorly significant to be able to have a positive thing to look at,” Joyner said.

No one knew at this time a year ago how O’Brien and his players would handle the incredible adversity they were dealing with in the wake of the sanctions.

Fast forward one year, if Big Ten media days are an indication, what the Lions achieved on the field in 2012 certainly has changed much of the national dialogue about the football program.

“If the 2012 team taught us anything, including me, it taught us about how to handle things that aren’t in your control,” O’Brien said. “You don’t have any control over certain things in your life. And how do you handle that? How do you pick yourself up and keep moving forward? Regardless of the record or whatever, that’s what that team and those group of leaders taught us.”