O’Brien discusses challenges Penn State faces

PHILADELPHIA – Penn State’s football program will head into the 2013 season at a significant scholarship disadvantage, one year before NCAA sanctions will force the Nittany Lions to be down to 65 scholarships.

Coach Bill O’Brien, on his second stop of a PSU coaches caravan tour Tuesday, explained where the Lions will stand this season.

“I think we’ll be below FCS scholarship numbers,” O’Brien said, referring to the Division I-AA limit of 65.

While most of the Big Ten members will be starting the fall with rosters consisting of up to 85 scholarship players, PSU figures to be under 65.

“If I had to estimate right now – and you have to do the math because it is important to understand how this works – I would say right now we would probably be at 66 scholarships on campus at Penn State,” O’Brien said Tuesday.

However, O’Brien explained that three players under scholarship – Dakota Royer, Luke Graham and Anthony Stanko – are not expected to play football in the fall. They have left the team but will remain in school, and under the NCAA sanctions, they can remain on scholarship.

The scholarships do count against the team’s total. Without those three, PSU would be at 63 scholarship players actually on the team.

“This is really a six-year sanction,” O’Brien said. “We have until 2014 to get down to 65 scholarships. We’re at 65 in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, and we’re already at 65, probably, in August of 2013. So it’s not just a four-year sanction.”

Stanko, a redshirt freshman, became the latest PSU player to take advantage of the NCAA policy allowing them to leave the team but remain on scholarship for their education. O’Brien announced Stanko’s decision Tuesday.

The coach also addressed details about the departure of quarterback Steven Bench, who decided last week to transfer.

“It’s his right, and I respect what he did. He has the ability to transfer and go play somewhere else right away,” O’Brien said.

“I don’t want anybody to transfer. I don’t want anybody to quit the team. I want them to play for Penn State. But that’s something that they decided to do, and I’m not going to begrudge the fact that that is what he wanted to do if he feels like he’s got a chance to be a starter somewhere else, or a better chance than at Penn State.”

Injury concerns are also at the forefront of the second-year coach’s mind, as his program attempts to ensure maximum safety at a time when roster depth is a primary concern.

Zach Zwinak, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2013, suffered a wrist injury on the third play of the Blue-White Game.

O’Brien joked, suggesting the injury was “non-life threatening,” and said he believes Zwinak should be back and ready to play when Penn State opens the 2013 season at MetLife Stadium against Syracuse.

But O’Brien shifted his tone when discussing the way the spring game is operated may have to be an area to review.

“Going forward, why would we ever want our best players to get hurt in a Blue-White Game?” O’Brien asked.

The coach already has taken measures to change the way the spring game is played in terms of scoring. With health concerns, other ideas may have to be implemented. This does not necessarily mean the spring game will vanish just yet, though.

“I understand how important that weekend is to our fans, and I’m not saying we’re going to put an end to the Blue-White Game,” O’Brien said. “I think we’ll find different ways to show the fans where we are as a football program.”