UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State's defense was definitely ahead of the offense on the first day of practice Monday, at least during the 20-minute portion that was open to the media.
In a span of about 10 minutes, the Nittany Lion quarterbacks threw four interceptions - two by starter Matt McGloin, one by backup Paul Jones and one by third-stringer Shane McGregor. All four came when the quarterbacks tried to throw into heavy coverage down the middle, and two were picked off by safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong.
"It wasn't great, it wasn't all pretty, but there were some good plays out here, and we've just got to keep getting better," coach Bill O'Brien said.
One thing the quarterbacks did do well on occasion was settle on their check-down receiver in the slot when nothing was available downfield. All three quarterbacks made good decisions on such plays at times, throwing catchable passes with good touch to their targets to give them a chance to run in space.
McGloin already has shown in his career that he's capable of making those kind of throws, while Jones showed that ability Monday. Those passes consistently were troublesome for former PSU quarterback Rob Bolden, who's now at LSU.
"I have a lot of fun coaching Matt, coaching Paul, and Shane was out here this morning and he showed some improvement," O'Brien said. "There were some ugly plays out there, but there were also some really good plays."
Speaking specifically about McGloin, the coach said, "Matt's come out here and started off pretty decently."
O'Brien was asked about running back Silas Redd, who transferred to USC, but wouldn't discuss how big of a loss that would be. Instead, he talked about the opportunity that others now have, especially Bill Belton.
The coach was asked if he has to retool his offense with Redd's departure and said, "You don't have to retool everything. You know, the next man up. So it's Billy Belton's time to shine."
Belton, a converted receiver, was going to get some opportunities this year even if Redd had stayed, O'Brien said. The coaching staff evaluated Belton's skills when it took over and saw plenty to like from a running back standpoint.
"We saw really good feet, we saw good hands, good vision and a really instinctive football player," O'Brien said. "And so we felt like the best thing for us to do was to play him at running back."
DB depth a concern
O'Brien and the coaching staff "feel really good about the depth at most positions," but the secondary is not one of those. All four starters graduated last year, and the group has been depleted by the departures of Curtis Drake, Derrick Thomas and Tim Buckley.
"I think in the secondary we're a little thin right now just based on numbers," O'Brien said.
Projected starters at this point are Stephon Morris and Adrian Amos at the cornerback spots and Malcolm Willis and Jake Fagnano at the safeties. Morris has had extensive playing time, making 10 starts in 2010 and two last year, while Willis and Amos were key contributors in the secondary last year.
Starting left offensive tackle Donovan Smith is battling a hamstring injury, as is Fagnano, but O'Brien said neither is serious.
"They've got to hydrate better. They've got to drink more water," the coach said.
Linebacker Gerald Hodges limped off the field late in Monday's practice and was standing on the sideline with his right shoe off. It didn't appear to be anything serious as he wasn't being tended to by any trainers.
Nine players have transferred, and defensive lineman Jamil Pollard remains the only incoming freshman who has opted out of his scholarship. Pollard decided to go to Rutgers.
O'Brien believes he has some roster stability at this point, but he also knows that could change because any player can still leave and play immediately at another school - as long as he hasn't yet played in a game for the Lions.
"I'm very confident that the guys that are here today are committed," O'Brien said. "Again, it's day-to-day, but I'm confident in these guys."
The true freshmen did not take part in the early morning practice Monday. The coaches wanted to ease them in, so the newcomers had their own practice later in the day.
O'Brien called the first day an acclimation period and said the freshmen-only practice would be designed "just to try to get them used to our terminology, our practice pace before we throw them into the fire with the big guys."
With the departures of some key players and depth issues, O'Brien acknowledged that the true freshmen will be "really important."
O'Brien still wouldn't confirm if there will be names on the back of the uniforms this season.
"That's still under discussion," he said. "If that does happen, I'll make sure I let you know why we did it."