WILLIAMSPORT - Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien paid homage to two of the Nittany Lions' recent walk-on success stories to a place producing some of the program's current and future walk-ons during the PSU coaches caravan stop Tuesday at Penn College.
"The night before we played Wisconsin, one of the many Pennsylvania guys who stood up and said how much it meant to run out of the tunnel with a Penn State uniform on, was Jake Fagnano," said O'Brien about the Williamsport High School graduate.
Fagnano's career highlight happened the next day, intercepting a fourth-quarter pass that helped his team wrap up a season-ending victory.
"He had grown up watching it, and those are some of the Pennsylvania guys we're looking for," said O'Brien.
O'Brien later saluted linebacker Jamie Van Fleet from Loyalsock High School, in attendance, to applause from the estimated 250 in attendance during lunch in the Penn College field house. O'Brien noted that Van Fleet's career ended too soon with an ACL tear last spring before his senior season.
Tuesday's lunch here was the first stop in the second week of the two-week tour running through Pennsylvania and the northeast. O'Brien was joined on stage and in an earlier media interview session with women's field hockey coach Char Morett and men's volleyball coach Mark Pavlik.
There still are two area walk-ons on the football team this spring, defensive end Brent Smith, a redshirt freshman eligible Iraqi war veteran from Hughesville who joined the team in his late 20s, and senior punter Eli Skinner from Jersey Shore. Three more from the area are set to join the team in the fall, linebacker/running back Brandon Smith from Lewisburg, lineman Austin Fiedler from Warrior Run, and running back Von Walker from Central Mountain.
An ability to play multiple positions is useful, O'Brien said, thinking of his time with the New England Patriots where receiver Troy Brown played some cornerback and receiver Julian Edelman still plays in some nickel and dime packages. O'Brien likely would have brought the Patriots' ideas on two-way players and versatility anyhow, but the thought of just 65 scholarships starting next fall from NCAA sanctions might make that necessary.
"You can do it more with skill guys than linemen," said O'Brien, who added the Patriots practiced multiple players on offense and defense but didn't play them all in games. "Maybe you get a running back/linebacker type guy, but the bigger he gets, the more into his position he is like at tight end or tackle."
These "run-ons," as O'Brien likes to call them for their commitment to a unique opportunity, must be scouted first. To that end, O'Brien said his assistants are on the road six days per week and have visited 160 different schools. Most of those schools are in-state, and building relationships with high school coaches is important.
O'Brien said his spring coaches clinic tripled in attendance to 750 in his second year, a crowd closer in size to Joe Paterno's. The program also opened spring practices on Fridays to coaches.
"They know that they are going to be our pipeline for a few years hopefully forever," said O'Brien.
Trying to build an honest and trusting relationship is also necessary with the players. After all, 65 of them will still be on scholarship and most presumably will have other glamourous offers.
"We must explain that nothing can be promised, that this is about you coming to school here and having a role on this team and being a run-on for four years," said O'Brien. "I don't see the risk in that. I don't get into cautionary tales. We're up front with these guys, and we make sure we recruit them in the right way."
n O'Brien said his defensive philosophy is to top the run and give multiple looks as John Butler takes over for Ted Roof as defensive coordinator. "Bringing an offensive perspective, the hardest plays I called against were against multiple looks, move from an even front to odd, then zone, then drop 8 and rush 3," said O'Brien. "The good defenses, they kept things moving on good quarterbacks."
n O'Brien said running back Bill Belton, a converted receiver who started the 2012 season opener before getting hurt, had a good offseason in the weight room and was working hard in class. O'Brien was waiting for Belton's academic standing to clarify after the spring semester ends this month.
n O'Brien hoped Patriots coach Bill Belichick might visit his clinic one day, and noted friend Pats' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels came in March.
"But I don't think we'll ever get Tom Brady to speak," said O'Brien. "He's a Michigan guy."
n Brady's name came up in another joke when O'Brien recalled people thinking he swore during a TV interview when he called his team a bunch of "fighters" after the Wisconsin game. It fit with the image many had of O'Brien before his hiring, from a heated sideline exchange late in 2011 with his star quarterback.
"It was a windy day, and when I got done I had all these texts and 5 were from my mom, who's going to be 80, telling me I embarrassed myself and the family," said O'Brien. "She said 'I know you did it because I also saw you yell at Tom Brady."