Few will ever question Bill O'Brien's toughness or the tough-mindedness of his Penn State football team.
In his first season, amid a whirlwind of change and emotion brought about by severe NCAA sanctions, O'Brien was voted Big Ten coach of the year and the Nittany Lions won eight of 12 games.
To approach that level of success again, O'Brien has embraced a style of practicing — limited contact and almost no tackling to the ground — that would make most old football men cringe.
It's out of necessity for a team that will enter 2013 with 67 scholarship players, 18 under the NCAA limit.
Said O'Brien: “There's nothing more important — this year, next year, the year after — than the health of this football team.''
A reduced roster is something Penn State will have to learn to live with.
NCAA sanctions that started this season allow PSU to grant only 15 scholarships annually for four years, 10 fewer than the limit. Starting in 2014 for four years, the total scholarship count on the roster must not exceed 65.
Because of graduation, attrition and the NCAA allowing current players to transfer without sitting out a year, the Nittany Lions' roster already will have dropped to 67 scholarships by August.
So O'Brien wants to protect the precious assets he has.
“You can get a very, very high-quality practice without tackling,'' he said. “You can get a ton of work without tackling.''
O'Brien orders his team not to tackle a ballcarrier to the ground, nor does he want anyone diving to make a tackle or diving to break up or catch passes.
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“We want guys playing on their feet and moving their feet to get in position to make a tackle or catch a pass,'' he said. “That's how a high-quality football player practices.''
Much has been made about Penn State's lack of depth at quarterback.
Steven Bench transferred following spring football. Incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson will compete for the job.
But linebacker depth is just as thin or worse beyond senior Glenn Carson, junior Mike Hull and freshman Nyeem Wartman.
“That's something I think about 24/7,'' O'Brien said. “Our three linebackers who are in starting spots are very, very good players. They are tough guys and smart guys. There are some guys behind them who can help us.
“But there aren't a lot of guys there. We've got to do a good job of making sure Carson, Hull and Wartman are as healthy as they possibly can be going into the opener.''
That goes for the other 64 scholarship players on the roster, too.
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