Bill O'Brien handled what many considered an impossible situation with a tremendous amount of maturity and sensitivity in 2012. While the longtime assistant's head coaching debut got off to a rough start, with losses to Ohio and Virginia for an 0-2 start, O'Brien kept a level head and relied on his team's senior leadership to rip off eight wins in the final 10 games of the year.
O'Brien was nationally recognized for a job well done, with coach of the year honors and national praise from fans, peers and media both in and outside of the Penn State community.
Now with a year under his belt in State College, O'Brien is winding down on his second spring practice schedule with Penn State and looking to mold another winning team in 2013. But what challenges will O'Brien face in 2013 that may not have been as prevalent in 2012? Here is a look at some potential concerns for the Nittany Lions head coach.
Matt McGloin's play in 2012 showed just how valuable having coaches like Bill O'Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher can be. McGloin cut down on his mistakes in his senior year and played his way to a Big Ten-leading season.
McGloin had been a starter for the better part of the past two seasons as well, so he had playing experience. Experience will be very shallow for Penn State in 2013, which will require O'Brien to be a bit more patient with his options.
O'Brien has a sophomore with just a handful of pass attempts in Steven Bench, a junior college transfer in Tyler Ferguson and an incoming star freshman with Christian Hackenberg. In time, the quarterback position could become a strength on the offense, but for now it is an unknown position that could require some time to develop.
O'Brien, his staff and Penn State fans will have a better idea of how the position shapes up after the Blue White Game, but it remains to be seen just how quickly O'Brien can get his quarterback(s) up to speed to carry the offense in the fall.
On the other side of the football, Penn State has some concerns over the depth of the program's longtime signature position: linebacker.
Gone are seniors Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges (more on that coming up), but Penn State still has veteran starter Glenn Carson lining up in the middle of the defense.
Anchoring his sides should be Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman. Those three should make for one of the Big Ten's more solid linebacking trios. The problem is that Penn State has just two scholarship linebackers (Ben Kline and Gary Wooten) on the roster behind them.
Moving players from another position does not appear to be in the plans for now, O'Brien suggested during a Big Ten spring coaches conference call. In order to protect his starters at linebacker, as well as other positions, O'Brien has said he will be scaling back on the hitting in the Blue White Game.
But you cannot cut back on the tackling and hitting once the football season starts. Keeping Carson, Hull and Wartman as healthy as possible will be crucial, and what they do in practices every week in the fall will have to be watched a little more closely than usual.
One of the aspects of the 2012 Penn State team that helped make O'Brien's first year a success was the tremendous amount of senior leadership on the team.
Once the NCAA opened the door for players to take advantage of a free transfer (they did not have to sit out a year if transferring to another FBS school, and Penn State could not restrict where they went), the true leaders of Penn State's football program showed.
Players such as Michael Mauti, Michael Zordich, Jordan Hill and Matt McGloin took hold of Penn State's situation and sent a message to all that there would be no holding them back. Last year, it was easy to buy into that message.
After everything that had unfolded over the past year, the football team ironically served as a unifier for Penn State fans. It was very easy to root for the players that decided to stick with Penn State as the program and school dealt with unprecedented NCAA sanctions.
Can that theme continue in 2013? Certainly it can, but to what extent can it thrive? How often can the same message be sold, and more importantly, who will be the players looked upon to deliver that message?
Penn State had a number of young players blossom last season, but are players like Allen Robinson, Adrian Amos and Zach Zwinak prepared to take on more of a leadership role?
O'Brien said this spring that new leaders develop every year in college football. Every year is different. We may not be able to see who those leaders are just yet, but O'Brien has his eyes on some players he feels can fill that void when the time is right. How long does that take to happen, and will it be too late for it to have any impact?
Bill O'Brien has some great sales pitches. How else would he have convinced star tight end Adam Breneman, quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive lineman Garrett Sickels to stay committed to the program fresh after the NCAA sanctions were levied?
O'Brien sells recruits on the idea of getting a Penn State education and playing in front of a Beaver Stadium crowd. Even when the stadium is not jam-packed with up to 110,000 fans, Penn State home games are likely to draw more fans on a Saturday than the large majority of programs around the country.
For O'Brien, a chance to play in Beaver Stadium against programs like Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska is still something special. Some recruits buy in to that.
But the harsh reality for Penn State is that recruiting is still going to be a difficult task for a few more years. In 2013, it looks as though Penn State will have about 12 scholarships to offer. That requires Penn State's staff to do a little more homework and selling on recruits who could be fielding a number of other options.
That extra due diligence might also force the Nittany Lions to hold off on extending an offer to some recruits, so they can be sure they can honor the scholarship offer.
It will be a few more years until Penn State fans get a chance to see what O'Brien can do with a full allotment of scholarship offers. He has done well so far, but it will be an uphill battle through the Class of 2016.
Bill O'Brien is now able to sell recruits on the opportunity to possibly play in a postseason bowl game, with the postseason ban set to expire in time for the 2016 season. But that opportunity will not be available to the 2013 Nittany Lions, of course.
As referenced earlier, motivating the 2012 team was a relative piece of cake with the senior leadership and the fresh impact of sanctions hitting the program.
One question I have for the 2013 season is whether or not they can continue to play inspired football from start to finish. This is not a question of the character of the team, because we have yet to see what this team is capable of on the field. But it should serve as a lingering concern as the season progresses.
Penn State still has the chance to play for a division championship, and that trophy can still offer something to shoot for. But how younger players respond to that goal is always going to be a question to address, especially if Penn State hits a lull at some point in the season.
And again, the point here is this team will need player leaders to emerge to keep the team motivated as a complement to the messages being sent by the coaching staff.
After putting together a successful debut season at Penn State, Bill O'Brien quickly became a hot target of NFL franchises in need of a new head coach. And why wouldn't they look at O'Brien as a candidate?
O'Brien made a name for himself as an NFL assistant with the New England Patriots, working on the sidelines with Tom Brady and drawing up new offensive sets with innovative tight end use. At Penn State he showed great character and leadership in handling the disgraced program, turned Matt McGloin in to a leading passer in the Big Ten, developed a number of young tight ends and had a sophomore lead the Big Ten in receiving. His play calling showed guts at times in a season where there was arguably little to lose. His grit and determination to improve as the season progressed paid off as Penn State's football program showed a new offensive look with some good successes (and of course a few setbacks).
Remember that O'Brien also ended up choosing to accept a job at Penn State over the chance to pursue a job with the Jacksonville Jaguars. It seems as though O'Brien has an NFL pedigree, and if he can build another winning season with the kind of depth concerns he has to work with in 2013, the eyes of the NFL will once again be cast in O'Brien's direction.
I get the sense O'Brien will be coaching in the NFL before his contract at Penn State (eight more seasons remaining) expires. Call it just a hunch, but O'Brien is an easy target of the NFL and at some point you have to wonder just how strong the pull of coaching t the highest level will be on him. This presents a number of challenges for 2013, because with a string of wins the rumor mills will start turning rapidly. Unless O'Brien says it plain and clear that he is not interested in the NFL, those rumors will filter in to weekly press conferences and create some unwanted distractions.
Of course, even when a coach says he is not interested, he could just be hiding something.