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O'Brien excited

Published August 09. 2013 05:03PM

STATE COLLEGE - A year ago, Bill O'Brien sat in front of the media at Beaver Stadium answering questions about the NCAA sanctions handed down on the Nittany Lions football program after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, taking over a program that was built by the late Joe Paterno.

As Penn State enters its second year of those sanctions, O'Brien and his staff are working hard to keep those who decided to stay at Penn State to continue their football career on the right path.

"I feel like we do a good job as a staff, and our players do a good job of really being focused," O'Brien said. "I think we've got a focused bunch of guys, and that's no different this year than it was last year. These guys are focused and attentive in meetings, and when they go out on the practice field they're practicing hard. They're having some fun, and I feel like we're focused.

"We're still in summer school, final exams will be Friday and Saturday. And then really getting going with this training camp and focusing all of our attention on getting ready to play Syracuse, and I believe the players feel the same way."

As always on Media Day, incoming freshmen and walk-ons aren't allowed to be interviewed. That meant Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg were off limits. Another local product, Tamaqua alum Garth Lakitsky, who is listed as a linebacker, has walked on to the squad after two years of playing at Lackawanna Junior College.

O'Brien said Ferguson has a slight edge after three days of practice because he knows the system. For either to be successful, O'Brien needs the offensive line to stay focused.

"We have a lot of confidence in our offensive line," he said. "We feel that the tackle position, the guard position and the center position we've got guys there that have played a lot of football for us. Even Garry Gilliam, who we moved over there from tight end, he's played a lot of football here at Penn State, especially last year, so we're expecting him to come in there and help us.

"They're very high-character guys and tough guys. They communicate well."

There is more of a concern on the defensive front.

"I would say that right now we feel decent about the offensive line depth," he noted. "We feel like we've got eight guys there that can play. We've got three tackles, and I'll tell you this: We've got a freshman that's come in and done a nice job in three practices. That's Andrew Nelson.

"And then at center we've got Ty Howle there, who's had a really good three days, and then the next guy in at center would be Angelo Mangiro and he's done a nice job in the three days. Angelo is a very valuable guy because he can play guard, too, so he's kind of the swing guy. We call him the swing guy of those three inside positions.

"And then you've got (Miles) Dieffenbach at left guard and you've got (John) Urschel at right guard, but you've also got Anthony Alosi who's come back and done a nice job in the offseason, and we expect him to play for us. Obviously you've got Eric Shrive that can play guard or tackle, whose come back and done some decent things so far.

"On the defensive line, losing Brad Bars isn't the greatest thing in the world. Obviously you lose depth when you have an injury. But like we've said from day one here, it's the next man up. So when we look at our starting defensive line right now, you basically look at five guys. You've got Deion Barnes. You've got CJ Olaniyan. You've got inside DaQuan Jones, who's had an excellent three days. You've got Kyle Baublitz and Austin Johnson. So there's a decent rotation there of guys.

"Now, when you look at the defensive end spot, who can help us there? Can Evan Schwan keep improving and help us? Can any of the freshmen? Can Curtis Cothran or Garrett Sickels come in here and help us? So we feel decent about the depth."

Even though Penn State has been known as Linebacker U, that is a postion which O'Brien feels the team lacks depth.

"Our three starting linebackers are really good," he said. "Ben Kline has been in and out with a shoulder issue, and hopefully he'll be ready for Syracuse. And then we also have some young players there like Brandon Bell, who's a freshman, Gary Wooten who's basically a freshman. Those guys have improved."

Looking at the receiving corp, O'Brien isn't worried that after the year Alan Robinson had last year. He'll be the one everyone keeps an eye on.

"Part of the added attention he probably will receive is the fact that we've got other guys that can catch the football," O'Brien said. "We've got obviously other receivers. We've obviously got some talented tight ends. We've got guys in the backfield that can catch the ball. So those guys, we have to get the ball to those positions a little bit more and not just depend on Allen all the time."

As far as the backfield goes, O'Brien has kept a close watch on Billy Belton's grades and hopes he'll be okay once this summer session ends.

"I think he's doing well academically," O'Brien noted. "I believe he'll be fine.

"We have three backs there that are good players. (Zach) Zwinney obviously is a good player. Akeel Lynch has come in here and had a nice play yesterday on a screen pass. Belton has already broken a couple runs. He had a nice catch on a flare pass yesterday and had a big gain."

O'Brien and his staff have done everything to put 2012 in the past and have all eyes focused on the opener at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford against Syracuse.

"Every year is different," he added. "This is the 2013 team, and we've got good leaders on this team, good guys that have played a lot of football for us, and we're not concerned about that part of it. We're not concerned about replacing the seniors who went through an emotional time at all."

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