Penn State's annual media day is underway, and it started with a lengthy press conference from Bill O'Brien on the state of Nittany Lion football as preseason camp starts.
O'Brien knows he's got a tall task in front of him, and he's not shy about addressing the challenges and roadblocks ahead. He's going to have scholarship restrictions, player defections and a postseason ban for as long as anybody on this team's going to be around. But he's clearly up for the challenge, and that's hugely important for Penn State going forward.
With that, here are a few observations from O'Brien's appearance, as seen at Penn State's official website.
Bill Belton is ready to shoulder the load
Bill Belton finished last season at running back, but he looked light in the process. That's understandable; he was a true freshman last year, and only saw action at tailback in the last three games.
So Belton thought he'd be back at wideout when spring practices came around, until O'Brien informed him otherwise. "He said 'I'm a receiver,'" said O'Brien. "'No, you're a running back.' So we put him at running back, and he showed us he has really good feet. He's got a unique ability to be able to balance, put his hand on the ground and balance himself and spin. He's done a much better job—knock on wood—in the first three days of ball security. He has really good hands out of the back field."
Best of all for Penn State, when O'Brien pondered aloud whether Belton can be a 20-25 carry type of running back, O'Brien followed it up with "I think he can." Penn State's got some situational talent around Belton too, and if they can replicate Silas Redd's workload with Belton (let's hold off on the actual production for now), that's an enormous need filled.
Bill O'Brien is not a willing participant in the soap opera
It's impossible to talk about Penn State football and not mention the scandal, sanctions and ongoing disputes within the Penn State community. Even O'Brien mentioned them early and often. But as O'Brien has said multiple times, he's "here to be the football coach."
So that meant that when someone wanted to ask him about whether he'd gotten involved with the board of trustees, O'Brien—who probably has more than enough on his plate with football alone—declined to wade into that mess.
"No, I'm just a football coach," he said. "These are just—this is just my opinion, and I think it's all a part of staying on message and making sure that guys stay together and the university stays together, and we move the thing forward. Let's get going."
Sure, the "move forward" mantra that O'Brien repeated often during his press conference could be construed as a message to Penn State and its community as a whole—it is a good mindset, after all—but listening to O'Brien, it's clear he doesn't have the time or desire to get involved with any of the details of what's going on other than how it directly affects his football team, and he doesn't want his players to get involved like that either. Football's what he knows. That much is obvious.
Someone forgot to tell O'Brien and Penn State's football players that everything is terrible
When a reporter asked O'Brien whether the mood at Penn State's training camp was dour or a "nose to the grindstone" approach, O'Brien had a much different picture to paint.
"I'm telling you, we've had a fun camp," said O'Brien. "We're very positive. We like to laugh. If you've been around our staff a lot, there's a lot of chop-busting going on. [...] We have fun, we come compete."
That's welcome news for a fanbase that has had plenty of right to feel besieged on a near-daily basis, whether it's from the NCAA, outside attention, transfers or decommits. And the truth is that negative attention isn't going to go away for everybody once the season starts either. O'Brien had a message for his players on that front, though.
"If you've got rabbit ears on the road, you're in the wrong line of work," said O'Brien of opposing fans' hostility. "It's time to play football, and you have to focus on the game and the task at hand, not the crowd around you."
Pretty good advice for Penn State fans too.