Coaching tends to be important in college football. At Penn State, with scholarship restrictions in place for the next four seasons, coaching is arguably more important than in any other program. It's a good thing the staff that PSU has in place is one of the very best in the nation. And it all starts at the top.
Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator: Bill O'Brien
I don't remember exactly how I felt when I heard that Penn State was hiring Bill O'Brien to be its next head coach after Joe Paterno and most of his staff were ousted by the Sandusky scandal. As offensive coordinator of the Patriots, O'Brien was in charge of one of the most diverse and creative attacks in the football world. Penn State had always been a pretty vanilla offense, so this had a chance to get very interesting.
And get interesting it did. O'Brien immediately got onto my good side by naming Matthew McGloin the starting quarterback, after I had spent almost the entire 2011 season telling anyone who would listen how much better McGloin was than the devil himself Rob Bolden. Of course, Bolden would hardly qualify as a villain by the time the 2011 season was over, but the point is that the guy who coached Tom Brady had confidence in Matt McGloin. That was a good thing.
The transformation of the Penn State offense from 2011 to 2012 was truly something to behold. Three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust was nowhere to be found. In its place were formations designed to take advantage of tight end vs. linebacker mismatches, passing plays on third down, and daring fourth down conversion attempts that had even a risk-prone strategist like myself watching the games in sheer terror. It was unlike anything Penn State fans had seen before.
PSU now had a system in place to attract high-end offensive talent, and that would pay dividends in recruiting season. So would this:
Swear words in real life: boring. Swear words on television: awesome. The unbridled enthusiasm shown by O'Brien in the season finale was surely the clinching factor in getting top quarterback recruit Christian Hackenberg to choose Penn State.
Okay, so maybe O'Brien's experience with Tom Brady and the amazing transition of McGloin from zero to hero had something to do with Hackenberg's decision. Either way, O'Brien was attracting top-flight talent to Penn State less than a year after the NCAA handed out those scary sanctions.
In 2013, we'll see if O'Brien's success can continue with a quarterbacking contingent that's as inexperienced as they come. Also, will kicker Sam Ficken's psyche completely collapse if O'Brien keeps going for it on fourth down while in chippy field goal range? It probably won't take long to find out.
Defensive Coordinator: John Butler
Butler was promoted from secondary coach to defensive coordinator after last year's DC Ted Roof left the program for Georgia Tech in order to be closer to his family. Although a lot of Penn State fans were skeptical of Roof coming into 2011, most ended up pleased with the way things ended up. The Lions were 16th in the country in scoring defense last season and 28th in pass efficiency defense despite playing with an inexperienced and shallow secondary.
Why does that matter? Well, Butler will be working with an inexperienced secondary again. Last year's top cornerback Adrian Amos has been moved to safety, which leaves two new starters at the corners. Butler's coaching will be instrumental once again in helping the Lions to overcome their depth issues and attempt to repeat last season's success.
As far as Butler's general philosophy, here's a nice quote from the spring game that sums up his coaching style:
Ted [Roof] and I were very similar; that's why I came to work here was to be with Billy [O'Brien] and Penn State, but I also knew Ted so we share a lot of the same philosophical things. Being aggressive isn't always about blitzing; it's about giving people different looks and having a disguise package. We're trying to teach our players how to understand the concepts of our defense. What are the strengths, what are the weaknesses and how a different picture can still be aggressive but be very basic. It's not always about are we going to blitz more or are we going to do more stuff, it's really just about having multiple complimentary parts that can confuse and disrupt the other team's offense which is what we want to be.
One of the fun things that Roof did last year was move reserve linebacker Mike Hull around a lot and have him attack the opposing offense from different places. Now that Hull is a starter, perhaps another linebacker will emerge as the "wild card" guy. That would be cool, because blitzing linebackers is a lot more fun than when they drop back on every play like they did in the Tom Bradley days.
By the way, 2012 will be Butler's first season as DC at a BCS program. His previous BCS stops include Minnesota (2007-10) as the linebackers and special teams coach and South Carolina (2011), where he coached special teams and outside linebackers.
Director of Strength and Conditioning: Craig Fitzgerald
I'm only mentioning this guy because he seems totally awesome. O'Brien is unabashed about his love for "Fitzy" and gives him frequent shout-outs during his postgame pressers. The bromance likely started when both guys were coaching at Maryland in the early 2000s. Fitzgerald is known for looking super-intense all the time and running around like a maniac on the sidelines with an "IRON LION" t-shirt on. He is also know for some unorthodox pregame routines.
Yes, a lot of Penn State's success last season was due to O'Brien's innovative play-calling, but it's also hard to ignore the never-say-die attitude a guy like Fitzgerland brings to the table. His presence on the Penn State sideline makes fans think that there is always a chance of victory.