Players in better mood this year

UNIVERSITY PARK – Penn State’s players felt like they were carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders entering last season’s opener, and this year they’re joking about things like who’s the best-looking offensive lineman.

They’re more relaxed, having more fun and are downright more excited to do what they came to Penn State to do, which is just play football.

“Last year was last year,” coach Bill O’Brien said, “and this year is this year.”

And they couldn’t be more different.

The Nittany Lions were so fired up to play Ohio last year in the first game after the NCAA sanctions were announced that they couldn’t actually pull off the task of playing well for an entire game. They ran out of gas in the second half, squandered a 14-3 lead and lost to the Bobcats, 24-14.

To a man, the players appear to be much more at ease this season now that they’re back in their comfort zone of just talking and thinking about football rather than scandal-related issues.

The issues they’re talking about this year include fun things, such as building on last season’s success and the excitement of playing the opener in an NFL stadium.

“It’s like a dream come true,” safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, a Bronx native, said of playing at MetLife Stadium, home of the New York Giants and Jets.

Rather than fielding endless questions about which players might transfer and what they could do to keep the team together, the players don’t have to be so serious at all times this year. Some fun give and take showed that Tuesday.

Right guard John Urschel, on a conference call, joked that he took exception with left guard Miles Dieffenbach calling himself the team’s best-looking offensive lineman on the ESPN “Training Days” program. Dieffenbach, one of the team jokesters who hammed it up for the TV cameras, had a classic response to Urschel’s objection later on.

“We’re all a great-looking group of guys, but I would have to give myself the [edge] on that one,” Dieffenbach said with a big smile. “You can’t fight the looks, you know what I mean? I’ve just got them. It’s natural, not much you can do about it.”

It was natural for Penn State’s players to suffer a letdown in the second half last year against Ohio because they expended so much energy during an emotional first half. The circumstances are very different this year, and O’Brien has taken steps during training camp to make sure the players remain fresh.

“I believe we’ve done a better job of that this year, I really do,” the coach said. “We’ve done a number of things to help that,” he added without getting into details.

Training details aside, the fact that this is just the first game of the season and not the historic first game after the sanctions should make a big difference for the PSU players.

“I believe it was a productive training camp,” O’Brien said. “At the end of the day, the proof will be in the pudding how we play early in the season.”

No QB update

O’Brien made it clear even before getting asked any questions Tuesday that he would not be naming a starting quarterback prior to the game.

“You’ll find out who the quarterback is on the first play of the game against Syracuse,” he said.

So, the public won’t know until then. But does O’Brien already know if he’s going with Christian Hackenberg or Tyler Ferguson? And does the team know?

Asked to clarify, O’Brien didn’t.

“So, just to clarify, you’ll find out who the starting quarterback is on the first offensive play on Saturday,” he said once again.

Syracuse isn’t naming its starting quarterback, either, and O’Brien doesn’t want to tip his hand in doing so.

“I’m not trying to do it to bust anybody’s chops,” he said. “I want to do what’s best for the football team right now, the 2013 football team, and I want to do what’s best for the guys involved, and I want to do what’s best for Penn State.

“What’s best for Penn State right now is for you to find out [about the quarterback] when we take the field for the first snap of offensive football against Syracuse.”

So, it’s two teams, four quarterbacks and two coaches unwilling to provide any details.

“We don’t really know what they’re going to do, they don’t really know what we’re going to do,” O’Brien said.

Injury update

Starting right offensive tackle Adam Gress (knee) and backup linebacker Ben Kline (shoulder) are “full participation” and good to go for Saturday, O’Brien said.

It’s unclear if Gress or Garry Gilliam will start, and just like with the quarterbacks, that won’t be known until game time.

News and notes

n The other starting spot up for grabs, at safety between Malcolm Willis and Ryan Keiser, also will be revealed Saturday.

“Both guys are really good players,” O’Brien said. “Again, they’ll both play for us.”

n Freshman defensive back Neiko Robinson is no longer on the football team, although O’Brien wouldn’t disclose exactly why.

“Neiko is not here,” the coach said. “Basically, what I’m going to tell you on that is what happened there is between Neiko and myself.

“Neiko is a fantastic kid. It had nothing to do with discipline, nothing. This kid is a fantastic kid. It just didn’t work out here at Penn State. He will end up somewhere, but he won’t be at Penn State.”