Commentary: Health, depth biggest keys for Lions

UNIVERSITY PARK – The two most important words for the Penn State football program over the next five or six years are health and depth, and coach Bill O’Brien has made it a point to discuss those issues more and more in recent weeks.

O’Brien has been more candid this offseason about the challenges facing the program during the NCAA sanction years, and make no mistake about it, those challenges will be large. Only being able to offer 15 scholarships a year for four years and being limited to 65 total scholarships for four years beginning in 2014 will take a toll on the overall talent in the program.

O’Brien doesn’t know exactly how much talent he can lure to Penn State over the next few years, but he does know that once the players arrive, he and his staff have to do everything they can to keep them healthy. That means thinking outside the box and changing the way they go about things in certain areas.

The coaches won’t be able to push the players the same way other programs do. For instance, O’Brien has acknowledged his team can’t tackle much during the week because it creates a higher risk for injuries, and the staff even wants bulldozing tailback Zach Zwinak to try and avoid contact when he runs so he can preserve his body. (Good luck with that last one.)

We will see elements of the stay-healthy-at-all-costs strategy today during the Blue-White Game, which has always been just a glorified practice but now will feel like even more of one. Starters and other key players typically haven’t played too long in the scrimmage, and that surely will be taken to another level from now on.

Unlike last year’s spring game, when the new coaches were still learning about every player and many starting jobs were up for grabs, O’Brien and his staff have a good understanding of the abilities of the key players on this year’s team. That gives them little reason to keep those guys on the field for very long today.

So while watching the quarterback competition unfold between Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson, you will want to have a roster handy to keep track of all the younger, inexperienced guys getting a lot of game action.

Then after the game, O’Brien probably will mention once again about how he has to take more precautions because of the depth concerns. That’s the reality for the PSU program under these ridiculous NCAA sanctions, and O’Brien with his experience working with a 53-man NFL roster has a good understanding of how to make it work.

Then again, the big difference is that in the NFL, every guy on the roster already is a good football player, while in college, many are still projects and works in progress.

For Penn State to succeed in the coming years, the starters must be able to stay healthy so that the projects are not forced into action.