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THIS SEASON AT PENN STATE IS ABOUT ATTEMPTING TO REBUILD a program. Since the revelations of Jerry Sandusky's crimes engulfed State College in controversy, the Nittany Lions have suffered an incessant wave of setbacks—including the death of the tarnished Joe Paterno—and were sent reeling by the revelations and repercussions of the Freeh report, which alleged that school and program administrators covered up facts in the Sandusky case. The Lions have been trying to repair their fractured image and come to terms with everything that went wrong. And as Penn State seeks to move on, the team hopes it can also play some pretty good football.
Since former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien was hired as the new head coach last Jan. 6, he has overhauled the staff and worked to put his creative stamp on the game plan. In contrast to Paterno's rather vanilla offensive approaches, O'Brien has installed a dynamic, multiple-look attack that uses complex formations.
Though the quarterback situation remains a work in progress—senior and onetime walk-on Matt McGloin, who had a so-so 54.1% completion rate in 2011, has been named the starter—the running game should be fierce, especially because junior Silas Redd returns after rushing for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns in 2011. But given O'Brien's pedigree, it's the tight end position that has the biggest upside. "The tight end will always be a part of any offense I'm associated with," he says. (His schemes most recently made stars out of the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.) So although Nittany Lions tight ends combined for just 122 receiving yards in '11, senior Garry Gilliam and titanic freshman Jesse James could be primed to break out.
The defense also should be in formidable Happy Valley mode. The Lions bring back several key pieces from a unit that held foes to 16.8 points per game, and linebacker Gerald Hodges, a returning first-team All--Big Ten selection, could create even more havoc as a senior.
The transition in State College won't be easy, but O'Brien is ready to begin his tenure on a positive—and winning—note. "We know that we have a long way to go," he says. "But we believe in Penn State. Penn State believes in us. We're looking forward to the future."
COACH Bill O'Brien (1st year)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Bill O'Brien
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Ted Roof