Bill O'Brien welcomed an opportunity to coach at Penn State amid turmoil and a cloud of uncertainty, but after one year on the job there is now a ray of sunshine starting to peek through in Happy Valley. A community torn and shaken by the fallout of a disturbing scandal and a continuing search for answers and clarity may have been enough to keep some candidates for the opening to turn away, but O'Brien has embraced the challenges that continue to be thrown at him left and right.
Taking over a job said to be toxic? Bring it on.
NCAA sanctions? He'll deal with it.
Top running back, wide receiver and kicker all transfer? Fine. Move on.
No bowl game? No problem.
Continuing our look at first year head coaches in college football in 2012, we dive deeper in to the year that was for Bill O'Brien at Penn State.
What Went Right: One of the challenges O'Brien had in his first year was convincing many within the Penn State fan base and family that he was indeed the right man for the job. That meant changing the way Penn State football was run in many respects. He won over the fans quickly by hitting the road and speaking to alums all over the state and neighboring states. He opened up practices to the media and NFL scouts. Then when it came time to coach, he made decisions swiftly rather than dragging them out.
McGloin was named the starting quarterback in late spring. Bill Belton was named the starting running back, but when Belton was not panning out O'Brien was confident in handing off to Zach Zwinak. Zwinak in turn rushed for 1,000 yards by the end of the year after starting the season third on the depth chart. O'Brien was not afraid to go for it on fourth downs, and it paid off often.
Under O'Brien we saw Matt McGloin put up Big Ten-leading numbers and sophomore Allen Robinson be named the conference's top wide receiver. Freshman defensive end Deion Barnes led the team in tackles for loss and was named the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year. What we saw was even though Penn State had some holes to fill on their roster, O'Brien (and his staff) were able to get the most out of what they had, especially form the younger players. Few expected that to happen, at least as quickly as it did.
Penn State ended their season on a high note, topping Wisconsin in overtime a week before the Badgers went on to win the Big Ten championship. That, along with dominating wins at Illinois and Iowa and a big comeback win against Northwestern provided some hope for the future at Penn State.
In terms of recruiting, O'Brien has done what he can. His Class of 2012 will get a pass for now considering how late he got involved and the other consequences going on. Penn State's Class of 2013 brought in one of the top quarterbacks (Christian Hackenberg) and tight ends (Adam Breneman) in the country. It may not pack the quality over quantity the way USC does, but it comes off as a 26th overall recruiting class in the 247 Sports composite rankings.
What Went Wrong: O'Brien's job got off to a rough start when the NCAA issued severe sanctions against his new program. A four-year postseason band and massive reduction in scholarships were not easy to receive, but the NCAA allowing for free transfers and making it legal for opposing programs to flock to Penn State's campus made for headaches not seen since SMU received a death penalty. As a result Penn State lost their best offensive player, running back Silas Redd, to USC and their leading receiver, Justin Brown, to Oklahoma along with a handful of others highlighted by kicker Anthony Fera (Texas).
O'Brien would also probably do anything to get one of his first two games back, if not both. Penn State opened the year with a stunning loss to the Ohio Bobcats, getting shutout in the second half by the visiting MAC contenders. The following week special teams doomed Penn State in a nail-biting loss at Virginia. Kicker Sam Ficken took the brunt of the loss after missing four field goal attempts and an extra point in a 17-16 setback. The Nittany Lions also came up short against two of the better teams in the conference, Ohio State and Nebraska.
Where Do Things Go From Here: The big question surrounding O'Brien is when or if he will one day leave Penn State behind for a shot at coaching in the NFL. O'Brien has job security like no other coach in football right now at Penn State (eight years remaining on his contract, automatically extended four years as a result of NCAA sanctions), but he is widely regarded as a guy ideal for an NFL job if he wants it. If he stays in State College though it will be fascinating to see what he will be able to do if the first year is any indication.
Penn State has three more seasons of NCAA sanctions, so things should start to get easier as far as recruiting is concerned. It will be great to get a chance to see how O'Brien can manage a full recruiting class with the visions he has for the process. The future of the offense should be in good hands with top quality talent at the two most important positions in O'Brien's style of offense. The challenge will be to maintain a physical level that will be able to compete at the Big Ten level until the sanctions expire. Even with an aggressive approach and improved strength and conditioning program, that could be a hurdle tough to leap for Penn State against elite opponents like Ohio State and Michigan for a few more years.
But O'Brien is not the kind of guy who backs down from a challenge. Why would that stand in his way?
Bill O'Brien's First Year Coaching Grade: A
Photo credit: USA Today Sports