O’Brien is careful not to overwork players

UNIVERSITY PARK – It’s a delicate balance Bill O’Brien and his coaching staff work on and, safe to say, worry about every day in practice.

The coaches have to prepare Penn State’s players for the grind of a physically demanding sport, but, with only 66 scholarships, they can’t push the guys too hard in training camp for fear of overworking them or having someone get injured.

Joe Paterno had been a head coach for more than 40 years and still talked about how tough of a challenge that was each preseason.

Second-year head coach O’Brien faces a significantly greater challenge because of PSU’s drastic roster reduction.

“That’s a balance we talk about every single day,” O’Brien said Thursday at media day. “Even today we sat in our staff meeting this morning and talked about how we wanted to do things.”

It’s all done with one goal in mind.

“This is the time of year where you can’t afford to lose anybody because it will definitely affect you in the fall,” linebacker Mike Hull said. “We’ve just got to be smart and keep doing what we’re doing.”

Much already has been written and said about the Nittany Lions doing more “thud” drills in practice, meaning they hit each other but don’t follow through with tackles all the way to the ground.

“We’re doing a great job staying on our feet,” defensive end Deion Barnes said. “Guys aren’t tackling that much, and like Coach O’Brien says, when you stay on your feet, guys don’t get hurt.”

But are they getting as prepared for the season as they would under more normal circumstances?

NFL teams primarily do thud work, and O’Brien has a lot of experience with that coming from the pros. But pros are pros for a reason, and the reality is that most other college programs are hitting a lot more and doing more tackling than Penn State does in practice.

“It’s kind of tough because we’re used to just going full speed ahead and real intense,” Hull said. “But we’re still doing that, still getting all the work in, but whenever we go to tackle the ballcarrier we’re just keeping him up on his feet.”

Hull doesn’t believe the players will be less crisp because of the different practice style.

“No, I don’t think that,” he said. “I think staying on your feet gets your fundamentals that much better just because you’re not diving at people. You’re just staying on your feet and taking things square up.”

Barnes doesn’t see a downside to less hitting and tackling either.

“Like the guys in the NFL do, we’re going to still be able to be efficient with our tackling,” he said. “I have no problem just doing thud through training camp. Sometimes you are going to tackle, but doing thud most of the time saves legs and saves injuries.”

There’s more to O’Brien’s philosophy of balancing the workload than just the thud drills. It’s about efficient hitting and planning, he said, while spreading out exactly who’s doing the hitting.

“We’ve got a lot of reps in practice,” O’Brien said. “OK, so let’s say you get 50 to 60 reps in practice. One thing that we try to do is get our No. 1 groups quality, good reps. We don’t want to give them 50 million reps in a practice, but we try to get them quality, good reps. And then we try to get the younger players a lot of reps, get those guys in there and let them play football.

“And then maybe at the end of practice, instead of doing gassers where we run back and forth on the field – we feel like our team is in decent condition – maybe we’ll do more upper-body conditioning, things like that.”

Every coach in the country is doing whatever he can to keep his team as healthy as possible during training camp. But no matter how successful they hope to be at that, the bottom line is their 85 scholarships give them far more margin for error than Penn State.

So O’Brien has to be a master at it.

“We try to be creative every single day to make sure our team is as healthy as possible for [the opener against] Syracuse,” O’Brien said.