The last time we saw Penn State, the Lions were celebrating a surprisingly strong finish to the 2012 season and saying farewell to a special senior class. Penn State since has turned the page and will begin spring practice Monday with a mix of familiarity and uncertainty. Bill O'Brien is not the "new coach" in Happy Valley anymore, and players have acclimated to O'Brien and his staff. But the Lions are looking for a starting quarterback for the second consecutive spring. They also must replace several outstanding defenders and fill holes on both lines. But the depth crisis many of us envisioned for the Lions when the NCAA sanctions came down last summer simply isn't there in State College.
ESPN.com caught up with O'Brien late last week to discuss spring ball.
What are some of the main objectives you're looking for when you get on the field again?
Bill O'Brien: The No. 1 objective offensively is to make sure we come out of this spring practice with improvement from the quarterback position. We won't name a starter coming out of the spring, but at least at the end of 15 practices we'll have a good idea of how well these guys are grasping the system, Tyler Ferguson and Steven Bench. So that's a big deal for us offensively.
And defensively, some new guys will be in there, and seeing how those guys do, whether it's Nyeem Wartman at linebacker or Jordan Lucas at corner or some other guys who are going to be playing a little bit more next year, how much they improve. And then we'll work our special teams every single day, so hopefully we'll find some core special-teams players this spring.
What's your message to Steven and Tyler going into the spring? You're not naming the starter, but what do you want to see out of them?
BO'B: [Thursday] I was talking to them, and I said, 'Look, I just want you guys to put your head down and go to work. Don't worry about what everybody else on the outside of the program thinks about your performance, whether it's in scrimmages or the Blue-White Game or whatever it is. Just try to get better every single day.' These are two really, really good kids. They're smart, they work hard at it, they're grasping it pretty well to this point. We're pretty excited about getting started with them. I don't want them to think about anything other than trying to improve and be as good a leader as they can be.
Will you have to change the offense for one or the other? Do they fit in with what you did last year?
BO'B: We'll definitely be different. We'll be different in many ways. Matt [McGloin] had certain strengths we tried to play to, no question about it. Our system is expansive enough that you can have different parts in there to take advantage of the talents of the quarterbacks who are playing. So we'll be a different offense than we were last year.
Anything specific on what might change with these two quarterbacks or areas you can draw out more?
BO'B: I'd rather not get into all of that, but I can tell you these are two guys who are big, they're strong, they're fast, they look to be accurate passers. We're just looking forward to working with them.
You had some weapons emerge at running back and receiver last year, and obviously at tight end, it seems like you guys are loaded. What do you think about those groups?
BO'B: We feel good about all three of those positions. At running back, we have three guys there with [Zach] Zwinak, Billy Belton and Akeel Lynch, who will be competing. Tight end, we feel really good. Obviously, guys have got to stay healthy. And receiver-wise, we've got a lot of depth. All those positions, everybody's back except for Michael Zordich at running back. So we feel good, and hopefully we can start moving guys around more as they learn the offense better and better.
Allen [Robinson] separated himself at receiver. Who do you expect to be the No. 2 and No. 3 for you there?
BO'B: I think there's four or five guys who have to emerge in the spring and really get better in the spring. We think they will. [Brandon] Moseby-Felder played well for us last year at times. We need him to keep coming. We've got Alex Kenney, we've got Trevor Williams, we've got the young guys there like Eugene Lewis. We're really excited about the receiver depth, and we've got Richy Anderson, who was here, who looks to be a quick guy who can do some things for us.
Offensive line, you were pleasantly surprised by them last spring. What do you look for this time around? A lot of guys are back but you lose two good players. Obviously, Matt [Stankiewitch] is a big loss at center.
BO'B: Matt is a loss there. He played great for us, was All-Big Ten. And then Mike Farrell for us, too. So we've got to find a replacement for Matt at center. We think Ty Howie is a guy who could do that. He's a tough guy, very strong, very smart. We think he'll come out strong for us. And [line coach] Mac McWhorter did a good job last year of playing a lot of guys, so a lot of guys got experience in different games. That can only help. So we feel pretty good about our depth there. We've just got to, again, stay healthy and hopefully these younger guys can come along.
Defensively, from a leadership standpoint, who are you looking for to step up there because you lose several great leaders?
BO'B: If you look at the defensive line to start, DaQuan Jones, Deion Barnes, those are two guys who come to mind who really have to play well for us. They have been working extremely hard this offseason. At linebacker, you have Mike Hull and Glenn Carson. Those are two Penn State linebackers. I really enjoy being around those guys. They're tough, they're smart. And in the secondary, you've got Adrian Amos, who we think is an excellent player. We've got Malcolm Willis at safety, Stephen Obeng at safety, different guys that have played a lot of football for us. We need those guys to continue to be good leaders, and then we need some other guys to step up and improve every day.
Penn State has had such a great run at defensive tackle with [Jared] Odrick and Devon Still and then with Jordan [Hill] last year. Is there a guy you think can take that next step this year?
BO'B: We have a lot of candidates there. Obviously, we think DaQuan Jones is going to be a really good player for us in the fall. We just need to keep him healthy, just get him to the gate. We feel very, very good about him. And we've got some young guys there: Austin Johnson, who we think can be good. We have Brian Gaia, Derek Dowrey, these are guys that are freshmen that we think can really improve this spring. And we've got Kyle Baublitz, an older guy who's just a tough, Penn State football player who will play some for us. So we feel decent about our depth at that position.
With John Butler taking over the defense, will there be changes we'll notice, or will it be more subtle things?
BO'B: There will be some changes that you'll notice. We'll emphasize different packages. John's an excellent football coach, a very, very bright guy, an intense guy. The players really respect him. They really enjoy playing for him. He's a very quick-minded guy and he's going to do a great job for us.
You mentioned the two linebackers in Hull and Carson. What about that third spot?
BO'B: Right now, this spring, that guy will be Nyeem Wartman, who we think is going to be a really good player. He's a young player who was injured last year and really, we think he's got a bright, bright future. And then we've got Ben Kline there, who is injured and won't be in the spring. He had a shoulder operation, but he'll be back in training camp. He'll help with the linebacker position, but also is a special-teams guy. So we have some players competing for that job.
Anyone else out for the spring, and anyone switching positions?
BO'B: There are two position switches. Garry Gilliam will play offensive tackle now. He's had a fantastic offseason. We're really excited about the possibility of Garry Gilliam helping us a lot on the offensive line. We think he can play on the right or the left side. And then we moved Malik Golden to defensive back; he was a receiver last year. He's a young player who is very athletic, great kid and tough kid. We think he can help us at safety or maybe at corner. Other than Ben Kline, I can't think of anybody off the top of my head who won't be [participating] in spring. [Note: O'Brien said Sunday that tight end Kyle Carter won't participate in contact drills because of a wrist injury].
With special teams, you have Coach [Ron] Vanderlinden and Coach [Charles] London taking over that group. What are you looking to see out of the kicking game units after last year?
BO'B: It really needs to improve. Ron and Charles will do a great job coaching it. I believe our kickers will be improved, Sam Kicken and Alex Butterworth. They've had really good offseasons in the weight room. They're stronger, they're more explosive, they're more confident in their own abilities, so the specialists need to really improve. We've got to find some more returners, kickoff returners and punt returners. We need to try and get some more explosive plays out of that part of our game. But we're really excited about some of the younger players that we have there.
Last summer, when the sanctions came down, it looked like you would have some significant depth issues going forward. Talking to you, it doesn't seem like it. How do you feel about the team's overall depth?
BO'B: We feel really good about our depth. Is it exactly the way we would want it? No. We were only able to sign a certain amount of guys, but at the same time, we've got a lot of quality, tough [players]. I really enjoy this football team, being around these kids. We've got tough kids, smart guys. Obviously, these guys have to go out and play well for us, we have to stay healthy. But we feel like we'll field a very competitive football team in the fall.