O’Brien Gets Creative to Keep Team Spirits High

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By title, Bill O’Brien has the same job as 123 other individuals.

He is the head coach of a Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision program. His responsibilities are, in general, the same as these other men. Watch film, game plan for opponents, recruit, talk to the media, make public appearances, coach twelve or so games a season, and maybe sleep when time allows. This is all normal stuff for people in his position, except O’Brien’s situation can hardly be called normal.

Replacing a legend is hard enough. Add to it limited scholarships along with a four year bowl ban, and the job — especially selling the program to recruits — becomes that much harder. While the Penn State community relies on O’Brien to navigate the program through harsh penalties, O’Brien knows he will have to rely on several different groups if he is to be successful.

Being limited to signing fifteen high-school prospects each offseason as opposed to twenty five, one of the most important groups will be walk-on players, or, according to the O’Brien dictionary, “run-ons.”

“We’ve changed the name. We don’t call them walk-ons anymore, we call them “run-ons,” and they’re guys that have improved so much here in their time at Penn State.”

This is not the only new term in the O’Brien era, as “scout team” has been replaced with “the dirty show.” With some limited depth, there are some players on the scout team who are also expected to play some sort of role on Saturday. “They’re kind of doing double duty. It’s all part of the philosophy we have at Penn State of keeping everyone involved,” said O’Brien

Back to the run-on stuff though. How exactly did this come to be? The explanation is actually quite simple.

“These guys don’t walk, they run on the field, they sprint on the field,  they bust their butt on the field. These guys are not walk-ons, they are run-ons,” said a smiling O’Brien.

The coach knows this is not normal, but he’s okay with that, because doing things with complete normalcy isn’t going to overcome a setting that is anything but normal. “I know that goes against everybody’s term for nonscholarship players for the last 100 years of college football, but that’s just our term for them.”

Come this Saturday, there’s a decent chance that a former walk-on quarterback will be handing off to a former walk-on running back. If an ankle injury keeps starting running back Bill Belton out of action, expect to see Derek Day receiving the lion’s share of the carries. Belton out of action would also mean that tight end Matt Lehman, another former walk-on, would be the only player on the field against Virginia who has registered a touchdown reception for the Nittany Lions so far.

Matt McGloin needs no introduction. His rise from former walk-on to starting quarterback is well documented, but O’Brien offered high praise for guys like Day and Lehman, hoping there will be more of them in the future. “High school players in the state of Pennsylvania can really look at it and say, ‘here’s a place that I’ve grown up loving, and I’ve always wanted to play at, and here’s my opportunity to go play at and potentially earn a scholarship in my time there.’ I think there’s no doubt that hopefully resonates with kids in Pennsylvania especially,” said O’Brien.

Run-ons? Is it really motivating players or simply a cute name? Senior fullback, and team leader, Michael Zordich believes players have bought in to the term and symbolism. “Those guys work just as hard. It gives them something to be proud of.”

O’Brien has seen this Virginia program plenty of times from his days as an assistant in the Atlantic Coast Conference. “We had great rivalries with them at Georgia Tech and Maryland. We’d win one year, they’d win the next,” O’Brien recalled.

If he winds up on the winning side on Saturday in  Scott Stadium, some former walk-ons will play prominent roles as he makes current “run-ons” feel just as important.

Other Notes and Observations:

  • O’Brien was in a much more talkative mood yesterday than compared to Saturday following the loss to Ohio. He elaborated on answers to questions and believes most mistakes are fixable.
  • While O’Brien did not give a full answer, it sounds like the Gerald Hodges return man experiment is over.
  • Belton along with cornerback Stephon Morris are listed as “possible” on the injury report. A decision will likely be made on Thursday regarding both players who are dealing with ankle injuries.
  • O’Brien had high praise for his offensive line who did not allow McGloin to be sacked, calling them one of the units that played the best on Saturday.

Quote of the Day:

O’Brien on how much he plans to follow the NFL season: “I’ve got enough problems of my own, so I don’t know how closely I’ll be following the NFL season, but I definitely wish the New England Patriots luck.”

Photo By: Dave Cole
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Drew is a senior marketing major. This fall, he will be covering Penn State Football for Onward State. He is a huge Philadelphia sports fan and loves THON and Domonic Brown.

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