Penn State notebook: Slight tweaks by O'Brien help keep players on their toes

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — This week, Penn State’s depth chart contains a couple of minor differences from weeks past. Whereas running back Zach Zwinak and defensive end Deion Barnes have been at the top of their positions on each chart this season, the word “or” is now placed between them and Bill Belton and Anthony Zettel, respectively.

Seemingly every coach of every team in the country talks about how much practice matters and how it will determine playing time. For Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, moves like these illustrate his emphasis on the same belief, as well as the importance of keeping his players aware of their status as Penn State heads toward its upcoming games.

O’Brien said he tries to be as transparent as possible. He said Tuesday, for example, that he had three players in his office earlier in the morning, telling them exactly what they needed to improve on academically and athletically and where they stood on the team.

“We bring them in and say, ‘Hey, so-and-so, you’ve got to do a better job of practicing, especially in these three plays that you’re struggling with right now, and this other guy is doing a better job than you, he’s playing. He’s going to play this week,’ ” O’Brien said. “That’s the way it is. That’s Division I college football. That’s competition.”

Zettel is an example of how seriously O’Brien abides by this strategy. Rather than come off the bench behind Barnes, who led Penn State in sacks last year and was named the Big Ten freshman of the year on defense, Zettel started against Michigan. He had an interception in the second quarter and finished the game with three tackles.

But Zettel hasn’t been named the starter for the Ohio State game. As the depth chart shows, it will be him or Barnes. O’Brien said he doesn’t place an “or” at certain positions as a motivational tactic, just to emphasize that both players are about even, can work on certain aspects of their games and can still get playing time regardless of who starts.

Speaking specifically about Barnes and Zettel, he discussed the need to use as much depth as possible on the defensive line.

“When you’re playing these spread teams, these teams that throw the ball and run the read option, you’re asking your guys to give great effort, especially the big guys up front,” O’Brien said. “It’s important to rest guys and get a lot of guys involved, and I think that’s what we’re doing. I don’t look at it as Deion coming off the bench. I just look at it as Deion being a good team player and rotating in there and fulfilling his role when he’s in there.”

Hurrying up, slowing down

At times against Michigan, Penn State’s “NASCAR” no-huddle offense caught the Wolverines off-guard. Against a defense like Ohio State, which allows 19.9 points a game, O’Brien spoke of the need to go at a fast pace at times but also to mix it up, so as to not run down Penn State’s energy too much. The decision to go NASCAR or regular offense can vary depending on factors such as the time of the game or personnel groupings.

But as much as he sets up the plan, O’Brien also relies on the feel of a game.

“Once you get a feel for it, then it’s more about — to me, it’s the players have confidence in it,” he said. “They’ll even say to you, they’ll say, ‘Hey, coach, can we speed it up again.’ And then as a coach, you’re going, ‘Maybe we need to slow this down.’ But these kids — and there’s a lot to be said for a kid that has confidence in what you’re doing — they want to speed it up.”

Quick hits

Fox Sports 1 was the latest to hop on the “John Urschel is really smart” bandwagon. On Monday, the new network named him the Best Person in Sports for his academic and athletic prowess.

“You want to call me the best person in sports, go ahead,” Urschel joked Tuesday. “At least yesterday. I’m no longer the best person in sports."

Mark Dent:, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.

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