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Penn State Coaching Profile: Bill O'Brien In New England

An interview with SB Nation Boston columnist Luke Hughes on Penn State's hiring of Bill O'Brien.

Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien has been the Nittany Lions' leader for barely over a week but already he has made some waves. The outgoing Patriots offensive coordinator has filled out most of his new coaching staff, led his New England offense to a 45-10 win against the Denver Broncos in the NFL's Divisional Playoff round and landed his first recruit, Worchester (Mass.) Academy defensive back Jordan Lucas, as reported by Lions 247's Sean Fitz on Monday night.

Before O'Brien gets too deep into his tenure with the Nittany Lions, however, SB Nation Boston columnist Luke Hughes has some insight to offer on the coach's time with Bill Belichick and co. in New England as he gears up for what, at the most, will be his final two games coaching in the professional ranks for the foreseeable future. Check out Hughes' responses to some questions about O'Brien below.

AB: Generally, how do Patriots fans feel about the job Bill O'Brien has done? Is there a consensus, or are there competing opinions?

LH: He’s well-respected but still a bit misunderstood. At the start of his tenure, replacing a popular coordinator in Josh McDaniels, the general feelings were that O’Brien was too inexperienced and hadn’t yet earned the right to conduct a Tom Brady led offense. Those concerns continued into his first season on the job, as the offense struggled and many felt he may not be cut out for the coordinator gig. A Brady MVP award and a couple dozen Gronk spikes later, New Englanders have warmed to O’Brien and his offensive prowess.

McDaniels' re-insertion as coordinator may take away from O’Brien’s legacy in New England, but O’Brien definitely holds a higher appreciation among fans for what he’s been able to accomplish – especially if they are able to win the Super Bowl.

AB: Could you break down his offense?

LH: It is awfully difficult to differentiate between the offensive systems of Charlie Weis, McDaniels and O’Brien. It’s not because Belichick’s offensive philosophy is geared one way or another, although it is, but mainly because Tom Brady’s unique skill set forces any system to uproot from its original form and reconfigure around Brady.

The system clearly runs through Brady’s arm and doesn’t call for a heavy workload out of the backfield, which shows with the 2:1 pass-to-run rate. O’Brien prefers to run out of the shotgun set, which includes a good deal of intermediate crossing patterns and halfback draws to keep opposing linebackers honest.

AB: How would you rate O'Brien's quarterback development, or perhaps, more appropriately, his quarterback management?

LH: Tom Brady may very well go down as the greatest quarterback ever in the NFL. Sure, that fact will forever be up for debate, but when you’re dealing with one of the greatest ever to play the position, it’s tough to judge an offensive coordinators impact.

Put aside all of Brady’s touchdowns, records and Super Bowl titles, and looking at the development of backup quarterbacks like Matt Cassell, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett. O’Brien did a fantastic job as QB coach with Cassell and helped turn him into a solid NFL starter. Now, he’s done the same thing with Hoyer, who just three years ago was an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State and now is likely to land a starting quarterback job sometime in the offseason. Mallet also showed great signs of poise and precision during the preseason and even though there hasn’t been much proof of O’Brien’s impact, the experience of Brady and Hoyer had to have trickled down.

Any QB Penn State rolls out over the next few years would be lucky to learn from such a great football mind.

AB: Obviously, the first impression Penn State fans have of O'Brien is his sideline spat with Tom Brady a couple of weeks ago. What do you think people should make of that incident?

LH: Fans initially wanted his head after the sideline dust-up with Brady earlier this year, but after listening to the QB’s perspective on the incident – he conceded his own faults in causing the mix-up -- many began to appreciate O’Brien’s fiery style.

More than anything, Happy Valley fans should see the "spat" – if you want to call it that -- as a sign of O’Brien’s enthusiasm and intolerance to hostility. In New England, Tom Brady is almost holier than God, so if those fans are willing to accept O’Brien’s fire and passion as a positive, then Happy Valley would be lucky to have that type of behavior in the locker room.

AB: What kind of fit would you see O'Brien's system being with the college game in general and the Big Ten specifically?

LH: O’Brien already ran a spread-type attack in New England, so turning into the popular offensive system of the day at the college level wouldn’t be too hard. The issue would lie in adapting to the Big Ten’s traditional smash-mouth style of football. O’Brien doesn’t specialize in the ground game and at least with the Patriots didn’t implement a run it down your throat mentality. If he’s able to bring in the types of players who can fit a spread-type system, then I don’t see why it wouldn’t work even against the athletic defenses in Michigan and Ohio State.

AB: How would you see O'Brien handling things like academics and NCAA regulations?

LH: At this point, any current NCAA investigation is out of O’Brien’s hands and his handling of the situation would be interesting to see, especially since he’s never had to worry about compliance in the NFL. Being somewhat of a hardass, I don’t see O’Brien sitting idly by and tolerating academic or compliance violations. Expect him to bring the Belichick School of thinking to his players on and off field behavior, having next to zero tolerance for any insubordination.

AB: Where might O'Brien succeed where other Belichick disciples (Charlie Weis, Josh McDaniels, etc.) failed?

LH: In my opinion, McDaniels had more success than he was credited with in Denver, and the NFL is a totally different game than college, so I’m going to leave him out of this comparison.

As for Weis, he always seemed too overwhelmed by the whole recruiting aspect at Notre Dame and, more than anything, struggled to motivate his young, talented players to reach their full potential. O’Brien’s excitement, passion and role as lifelong student of the game – a Belichickian trait -- should help him to not only teach but inspire his young players. The one area I’d worry about would be recruiting. Given all that’s gone on in Happy Valley, it will be awfully difficult to find any five- or even four-star recruits willing to spend four years in a place riddled with so much uncertainty.

AB: Is O'Brien prepared to become the face of a program in this kind of turmoil?

LH: I don’t think anyone could be prepared for what Penn State is going to endure over the next decade or so. This scandal was so broad and delicate, in terms of the people it affected (kids, primarily) and the way it was handled, err mishandled, that taking the job would almost be a death sentence on its own. High profile coaches like Urban Meyer rebuffed any interest in the job from the very start for a reason and no matter what type of coach he turns out to be, Bill O’Brien is going to be damn hard pressed to be anything but the guinea pig for rebuilding SMU 2.0.

AB: Any general thoughts about O'Brien and Penn State?

LH: Bill O’Brien is a very smart man with a lot passion (See: Brady spat) and the same Bill Belichick no-nonsense attitude. Normally, this sort of mixture would be the perfect recipe for a big time college program with a bunch of top-rated prima donnas in need of a serious attitude adjustment, but in this situation there are just too many complications to deal with – recruiting problems, NCAA sanctions, replacing Paterno and of course the scandal -- to really find success.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.