O'Brien previews Nittany Lions' game with Purdue

November 15, 2013

Bill O'Brien press conference
Nov. 12, 2013

COACH O'BRIEN: Injury update: Ben Kline will be out for the season. Ben tore a chest muscle and he'll have surgery on that and he'll be out for the remainder of the year.
Just a little note on Ben Kline, he tore his peck muscle on the second play of the game, and he played the rest of the game. I can't say enough about him, he is a tremendous kid and he's a 4.0 student. We're going to miss him out there.
Somebody asked me about Allen Robinson after the game and I didn't know anything at that point, but he got a little bit of a shoulder issue, but we expect him to play in the game on Saturday.
Other than that, it looks like we've got some bumps and bruises, one case of tonsillitis, but other than that it seems like everybody is doing okay and should be expected to play on Saturday.

Q. Mike Hull said this morning that he feels like the team's back is against the wall. Do you feel the same?
Bill O'Brien: You know, that's Mike's opinion. Obviously he's entitled to his opinion. I think if I had to say what he means by that is that we're coming off a loss, so we need to come out and play well. We talked about that yesterday. We've had an up and down year. We obviously haven't always coached the best or always played the best, but we've done some good things, too. In our four losses, the four teams that we've played have a 30 8 record. When you play a schedule like that, you don't have a lot of margin for error, whether it's coaching or playing. We have got to come out ready to go and try to play mistake free football and play as good as we can. So, I think what Mike means there is that we've got to regroup and come back ready to go against Purdue.

Q. Can you evaluate the performance of two of your younger players; Eugene Lewis and Nyeem Wartman
Bill O'Brien: Yeah, Eugene has practiced hard and he has a lot of ability. He's only a redshirt freshman, so he's got a lot of time left. He's got three years left here. I think everybody expects redshirt freshmen to jump in and start and play right away, and in some cases it's hard to do that. You have to learn the plays and you have to perform well in practice. I would expect Eugene to play more on Saturday. Eugene is a great kid. He practices hard and he's improved. He certainly has, in my opinion, a really good future here at Penn State. Nyeem has played well at times this year and other times, hasn't played so well. He's made some plays for us, and other times he's missed some plays, just like any young player would do. He's a guy that played against Ohio last year and then was hurt. He was able to get a redshirt year, so he's a redshirt freshman and he's a guy that's only going to get better. Nyeem will continue to play for us and he'll continue to get better. We have a lot of confidence in both those players that they will get better and they'll work hard at it.

Q. Adam Breneman got a good number of snaps for you at Minnesota, How far has he come since the start of the season and how challenging is it for a freshman tight end to come right in and learn the offense?
Bill O'Brien: He's definitely improved and I thought he played very well against Minnesota. I thought he blocked well and I thought he caught the ball when it was thrown to him. He made some big plays for us in the game. He's another guy that I think is a young player who's got a really bright future here. He's a great kid, practices hard, practices hurt. He's had some ankle issues and foot issues this year, and he's practiced with it and done a nice job. Hopefully he'll keep contributing over the last three games and we can continue to try to get him the ball and help him in that area, too. I've got a lot of confidence that he's only going to get better.

Q. How are your true freshmen, in particular Christian Hackenberg, handling the later part of the season and what do you want them to get out of the last couple of weeks?
Bill O'Brien: I think that's a good question. I think that every true freshman definitely hits that wall. Everyone does. I think that the ones that are able to climb that wall, so to speak, are the ones that are able to come out and focus on football even if they are not having such a great practice or they don't feel very well, or maybe they had a tough exam schedule that day. I think when you look at some of our guys like Hackenberg, I thought he had one of his best practices yesterday. Here's a guy who's 18 years old, who, like I've always said, everything he sees in college football he's seeing for the first time, and I just thought that yesterday in practice there were things that started to click for him, so let's see what happens today. It's a little bit colder today, and today won't be an easy practice, so hopefully it continues to click for him. I would say in some regard it's the same for all the freshmen. We feel really good about our freshman class. We had a great developmental scrimmage last night, some guys really stood out in that scrimmage, so we feel good about the young players in our program.

Q. Last year's team won eight of their final 10 games, seemed to improve as you head through November. How do you view this team in that light with the just overall improvement?
Bill O'Brien: I don't think you can compare one team to the next. Every team is different. Every year is different. I think this football team has improved in some areas, and other areas it hasn't improved, and I think a lot of that is that we have to do a better job of coaching. I think it comes down to can you coach it better and figure out a different way to do it. I think there have been times where we've shown tremendous improvement. I think our kickoff coverage team has been better and better every week this year. I think that we've run the ball pretty well on offense, lately. I think that in the second half of the Minnesota game, we showed a lot of improvement defensively; stopping the run and on third down. [Our play] is just a little bit up and down, so we've got to try to smooth it out over the next few weeks starting with Purdue. We have to try to get it to where it's on more of an uphill slant, as far as improvement goes, and not as much up and down.

Q. You've said all along that Christian is an intelligent quarterback, what are the primary lessons that you taught him once you got a chance to coach him and how has he responded to those lessons?
Bill O'Brien: We've spent a lot of time together, obviously, since August. There's been times when it's been tough because we haven't made the plays or maybe made the play call that we wanted to make, and I think there's been other times that have been some great times as far, like the Michigan and Illinois overtime wins. I think he made really great throws there at the end of both games. It's an ever evolving process, and I think one of the things that's great about Christian is that he's very resilient. He's smart, he's has a tremendous work ethic, and he's 18 years old. That's not an excuse for anything, it just is what it is. Like they say you are what your record says you are. You're 5 4, that's what your record says you are, that's what you are. I do think that over the next three weeks you'll see improvement, and I think you'll see Christian get better and better here in his years at Penn State.

Q. Linebacker was the one area where you really had to stay healthy, and with the news of Ben Kline, you've been unbelievably unlucky in that area. Do you feel like the defense has done a pretty good job considering the physical situation that you've been in?
Bill O'Brien: I think that injuries are a part of the game. I think every team out there has to deal with injuries, and that's just the way it goes, especially this time of the year. You have to give our players a lot of credit for stepping in and trying to fulfill their role, whether it's Stephen Obeng-Agyapong or maybe even Brandon Bell this week. He's maybe going to get some playing time this week if he practices well. Injuries happen and we're expected to go out there and play well, and that's what we need to do.

Q. How have you seen the kickoff return unit develop this year? How close are those kids considering so many of them are run ons and how encouraged are you by the job they've done the last couple of weeks?
Bill O'Brien: I think the kickoff team and the kickoff return team have improved. I think the kickoff team has improved more than the kickoff return team. I think when you look at the kickoff return team, I think we've still got a ways to go there, but I do think it's better. We had a bunch of touchbacks against Minnesota. I think we only had one return. We just have to continue to work at it. I've said from day one that I think Charles London is doing a very good job. He has a lot to do with the improvement of those two units. We've got a lot of great kids playing hard on those units, and hopefully one of these times on the return team we'll pop one.

Q. How do you assess turnovers, not only in practice from drills, but the mental aspect behind them, as well?
Bill O'Brien: Turnovers have been an issue this year, and last game we fumbled the first play of the game and we fumbled the last play of the game offensively and that's not very good. We address it, we emphasize it and we find different ways to drill it. There's a fine line between over coaching it, too. What we tell them is that when you're a ball carrier on our team, you're carrying the hopes and dreams of this football team, and that's what you try to relate to the guys. The guys don't mean to fumble, it's just something that happens, and we've got to try to correct it and we've got to stop doing it.

Q. I wanted to ask about another one of your young players, tight end Jesse James. What's your evaluation of him on film?
Bill O'Brien: I really enjoy coaching Jesse. I see tremendous potential with Jesse and I think as long as Jesse continues to work and sees that potential in himself, he's got a chance his potential is limitless. I think Jesse did some really good things against Minnesota, but I think there's other areas he needs to improve in and he came out yesterday and had one of his best practices. He's a guy that's only going to get better and, in my opinion, he has a bright future in football, and he'll continue to work at it.

Q. Can you put your finger on why you think you've been more successful at home than on the road, or is that something you maybe have to get away from the season to get perspective?
Bill O'Brien: I think we've probably got to look at that when we get out of the season. It's hard to put a finger on that. In the Minnesota game I felt like we did some pretty good things. We had some good drives that we didn't finish in the first half on defense. We couldn't stop them on third down [in the first half], but we did in the second half. We just didn't put together the game, obviously. So whether that had to do with being on the road or not, I don't know. I don't see our guys acting any differently on the road. I just think that we've got to continue to coach it better and figure out a better way to do it in the off season, and that's what we're going to try to do.

Q. As coaches are you constantly talking about consistency and not turning the ball over on game day, and when it's not happening, what can you guys as coaches do?
Bill O'Brien: I think some of the things we look at are did the defense made a good play, maybe the guy caught a pass and turned and the ball was stripped right away and it was difficult for that guy to secure the football. There are other times that, to me, it's just a complete lack of focus. It's not like we love the kid any less for fumbling. We just try to stress that we can't go into playing a Minnesota team and fumble the first play of the game. That doesn't bode well for the game. I know it's just the first play, but we've got to take care of the ball. It's not yelling and screaming. What we did yesterday is we came in, just like I do every Monday, and have the good, the bad and the ugly of the game on Saturday. We show it to them, but we don't yell and scream at them. We teach them. We love teaching them. We really enjoy coaching these kids, so we just continue to teach them, find better ways to coach them, and that's what we'll always do here at Penn State.

Q. Are their any things you are doing differently?
Bill O'Brien: In certain instances, yes. I would say that we have tried some different things. Zach is wearing gloves now, so that's one that was something he asked me about. I said, 'yeah, if it makes you feel more confident in holding onto the ball.' I think one of the things with Zach, the ball has been in his left hand [when he fumbled], so we've looked at that. Billy is taking care of the ball better than he has in the past, and we fumbled that first one on Saturday, that's not good. On the fumbled center quarterback exchange, Christian and I talk about that all the time. When you're on the goal line and the center has to make a hard reach block to the left or to the right, it's like the golden rule of quarterbacking, you always have to stay with the center a little bit longer. That's the first thing you learn when you coach quarterbacks or you play quarterback. He pulled out a little bit early and that's why the ball was on the ground. We just have to execute better and emphasize that in coaching, but there are technical aspects to it like you're saying and that's what we try to teach.

Q. Allen has had a tremendous year. How would you evaluate the progress of the other receivers?
Bill O'Brien: I think there's been improvement with our receivers, I really do. I think Brandon [Felder] has had some chances to make plays and probably wishes he made some more of those plays, but he works extremely hard. He's a good route runner, and he came out to practice yesterday and made some plays. Richy [Anderson] and Eugene [Lewis] are both young receivers, and it's not the easiest thing in the world to come in and play wide receiver right away in any offense, not just the offenses that we run, and they've improved every week. They work extremely hard. I think for Richy, when you're a true freshman, it's hard. You've got to get your classes straight, you've got a lot of things going on, and it's hard to always focus on improving on the field. I think you'll see a lot of improvement in the off season with those guys. Eugene is a guy that will play more against Purdue, and I think he's a guy that we need to continue to try to get the ball to. He's got to continue to be a better route runner and really work on that, and I know he'll do that.

Q. Through nine games how would you evaluate Christian Hackenberg's play and do you judge him differently after nine games than after the first couple?
Bill O'Brien: I don't want to letter grade him. I understand the question and I'll answer it. But that's just I don't even think that makes sense, putting letter grades on players. Christian has, in many ways, improved every week. I'll give you an example: Minnesota, we're driving the ball, I think we had a third down in their territory. We called a play that required a check. It required a check where he had to use the tools in his toolbox to get the defense to show a little bit, and I've had guys at other places that I've been that could never do that. He did it. He checked the play, got us into the right play, but we couldn't complete the pass. So we've got to say, `okay, we got that step done.' It's all part of teaching. We got that step accomplished, now we've got to execute all the way through. There are other times where he made some really good throws. The curl route he threw to Matt Zanellato on the two minute drive was a great throw. Some of his deep balls that we didn't come down with were really good throws. Other throws where we run some of our little bunch stuff, he's got to understand there's a little touch on that pass. That's all part of being a young quarterback. I look at those things and say he got better at that last night. He's going to be better at that against Purdue and maybe even better against Nebraska and then better against Wisconsin. I believe that. I really believe in this kid. I've got a lot of belief in this kid, and I think he's going to be better and better. We need him to be better against Purdue. Like I've said, there's been a lot of good and then there have been some things that we just need to take from this stage to that stage and get it all the way to the next level. That's what we're trying to do.

Q. Where is Zach Zwinak's confidence at after last week?
Bill O'Brien: It's pretty good. He ran for 150 yards. I thought he ran the ball really hard. I thought he really ran the ball well against Minnesota. You have to give him credit, he really did run hard. There was some good blocking, too. I think he's confident. He and I talk every day, and I think he feels pretty good about where he's at. Now, we'll continue to rotate him and Bill [Belton] in there, and Akeel Lynch came back to practice yesterday, so we'll see how he's doing today, too.

Q. Allen Robinson season has drawn a bunch of pass interference penalties this season, how does that kind of impact his overall ability to affect a defense as they try to plan for him? Also, do you coach a young quarterback about a scenario like that, that we can get that flag.
Bill O'Brien: When Allen gets doubled, that really helped us in the running game against Minnesota because they had a high safety over the top of him to one side, and so now we're able to have one less guy to deal with in the running game to that side, so it helps there. Then you always have to coach the quarterback that if they take Allen away, here's your other options. Then when those guys are throwing the ball, they've [the defense] has to make a play on it if it's a good throw. So that's part of the process of teaching and getting the offense to improve, and that's what we're trying to do. But, when Allen gets doubled, it hurts Allen because he's getting doubled, but it can help the rest of the offense.

Q. How do you make sure the team has the same focus going into this week as if they're playing a team with a winning record?
Bill O'Brien: We don't have any problem focusing on Purdue. We respect Purdue. I think Coach Hazell is an excellent football coach. It's just his first year there. He's putting in his offense, defense and special teams. He's working hard in recruiting and I have a lot of respect for Darrell. Our guys are very focused on this game. With our guys it's never a matter of focusing on who the opponent is. It's not it has nothing to do with records or anything else. It's about playing the best football we can play and trying to get better from the mistakes that we made last week.

Q. Earlier in the year you had mentioned that you managed the roster, especially veteran guys, to give them a lesser load. Now with just a couple weeks left, do you see those guys having the energy level you want and has that been a successful strategy?
Bill O'Brien: The way that we've practiced I think has been good. I think that's another off season study that I would have to do to give you a better, more specific answer. I do see a lot of juice still with DaQuan Jones or John Urschel. I see these guys that have played a ton of snaps for us, and there's other guys, with a lot of energy. As it goes into November here, we're going to shorten practice a little bit and do some things at a faster pace and not have them out there until 6:30 at night. You're going to get them back there, get them something to eat and get them studying again. That's something we're going to continue to look at and strategize about.

Q. You have four State College High School graduates on your roster. That might make sense given the proximity, but can you talk about the relationship Penn State has with State High?
Bill O'Brien: We have a really good relationship with State College High School. We recruit there every time we have a period in recruiting where we can go by and visit schools. We make sure that State College High School is on our list of visits. I've been to the school personally and we have a great relationship with them. We always want to make sure that State College High School knows that there will be spots on our team for State College High School football players, no doubt about it.

Q. I believe you said a week or two ago that Ben Kline would also require off season shoulder surgery again. Does he also need surgery on the peck, too?
Bill O'Brien: Yeah, he'll have the peck surgery this coming week and then he'll have the shoulder surgery down the road.

Q. He still has two seasons left and he's already had a lot to overcome. What do you expect out of him and can you just kind of talk about the type of career he has left that you think he's capable of?
Bill O'Brien: I think with the surgical procedures that will take place, I think he can definitely come back from those, I really do. I think a lot of it has to do with the rehab. Knowing Ben Kline, I know he's going to rehab, and I actually brought him in yesterday and had this exact conversation with him. I said `hey, we're looking forward to you coming back here and being one of our leaders next year.' I told him that I still want him around the program right now, so he's in the meetings, he's out at practice. I look at Ben Kline as just a tough kid, kind of like in the two years I've been here, kind of like a Mike Yancich. Tough dudes that love football, love Penn State, and I would expect him to come back and play well for us.

Q. In this day and age big time recruits get a lot of exposure, but Adam and Christian were kind of the faces of the 2013 class for you guys, and they got asked so many questions after the sanctions last year. Do you think that helped the maturation process of them?
Bill O'Brien: I think any time you have to do this, deal with the media at a young age, I think the more you do it, the better you get at it. You guys have noticed that with me, right. I'm kidding. I do think that that helps. I think the one thing, too, to make clear, is that we've got a lot of other kids in that 2013 class that we think are pretty good. Let's talk about two positions. We had a developmental scrimmage last night and ran about 35 plays. If you looked at the offensive line we have Andrew Nelson, Brendan Mahon and Tanner Hartman and they came roaring off the ball. Then the defensive line they were blocking, Garrett Sickels, Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran, and they were roaring off the ball. It was a very physical scrimmage. We have a lot of fun, the guys love it, we love it and we crank the music. So there's a lot of faces of that 2013 recruiting class that I think you guys will get to know over the next three or four years.

Q. You seem particularly frustrated, maybe more, after this game than we've seen you. With everything that you guys have had to overcome, is some of it catching up to you? Do you sense any demoralization on the part of the team?
Bill O'Brien: No, I don't. I think I was just frustrated because of how that game went. I just felt like our defense came out and played well, and we drove the ball, and I'm just very frustrated when we don't score touchdowns. That was my frustration. As far as the morale of the team, I'm telling you, at 2:40 yesterday afternoon they are filing in that team meeting room and they are ready to go. It's just the way these kids are built, how they were brought up. It's Penn State. People question what is there to play for. There's a lot to play for. There's the respect of your opponent, there's your teammates, there's the tradition of Penn State football. At Penn State there will never be a question of what is there to play for, let me put it to you that way.

Q. The defense has also had some bumps in the road this year. Do you feel that what you guys turned out in the second half will be something that can carry over?
Bill O'Brien: I think there were a lot of positives in the second half. I think we stopped the run well and I think that we challenged their receivers more. I think we need to challenge some receivers a little bit more, but I think that we play good run defense, I really do. I know some teams have run the ball on us in different schemes, but I think the core of our defense plays good run defense. I think that it will carry over, and I hope it does. It's a different scheme that we'll go against this week, but I think our defense will continue to improve, and I believe it will carry over.

Q. You've given Allen a lot of opportunities in the screen game. Normally you see a smaller, quicker receiver in that role. What does he bring to the screen game that gives you confidence to put him in that position?
Bill O'Brien: He's pretty quick. He's not small, but he's pretty quick. Any time you've got a guy like that, you're trying to get the ball in his hands and he's got good playing strength. The one that we ran to him on Saturday in the beginning, we were in a NASCAR drive and he did a nice job of catching it and following his blockers. Donovan Smith did a great job of knocking out two guys, and I think Allen got 14 yards on that. A lot of it was his quickness. We throw the slip screens to other guys, it's just we've thrown a lot of them to Allen this year, too.

Q. How do you and the staff teach these guys about dealing with the media? I know you talked about it before to get used to the cameras and questions and that kind of thing.
Bill O'Brien: On the training, we talk to them a lot about being honest. We talk to them a lot about making sure that you talk about your teammates, as in praising your teammates and not talk about yourself a lot. We tell them to talk about teamwork because that is what the game is all about. But mostly, we let them go. On Saturday, we lost the game and I wanted to have a good long talk with them in the locker room after the game. I've let them [the media] talk to players, but I think after the game on Saturday, I just felt like we had a bunch of guys that were not happy with the outcome of that game, and I wanted to talk to them more than I wanted you to talk to them.

Q. I wanted to ask about Alex Butterworth because early in the season he was struggling to get it going. Last three games he's hit some pretty solid punts. Where have you seen him turn it around and maybe in practice have you seen him kind of adjust the way he kind of approaches it?
Bill O'Brien: He's a very improved punter. He's done a really good job. Larry Johnson has been working with him a lot, does a good job with him. I think the new snapper has helped, Zach Ladonis. A lot of it is about operation where you get a good snap and you're right in line with the punt, and then I think his confidence has grown. He's kicked some big punts for us this year, and that's been important. He put those two kicks inside the five yard line [at Minnesota]. Those were unbelievable punts, and he just continues to work on consistency. I'd say he's one of the most improved guys on our team.  

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Last Updated November 15, 2013