Penn State football still moving forward

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Year two of something else, something wholly unlike the product Happy Valley grew accustomed to for half a century, has ended.

This designation of originality would be accurate because a new coach replaced another who had been around for 50 years. But it works even more appropriately as a descriptor because of the NCAA-heightened stakes and because of the way Penn State coach Bill O'Brien has executed his plan thus far.

The program has been tested and renewed since the July 2012 sanctions, the touchstone event of what O'Brien calls a new era. And in this new era, two seasons deep, Penn State has gone 15-9. As the offseason begins, players and coaches take pride in the team's direction.

"I think our program stands on pretty solid ground right now," O'Brien said.

Solid is not the same thing as static. The latter adjective could have fit the earlier program. Not only was Joe Paterno the coach for several decades, the composition of the staff and the recipe for success on the field rarely changed. In 2011, Paterno's last year, all the full-time assistant coaches had all been there for at least eight seasons, some for decades.

O'Brien's staff has already been altered. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for Georgia Tech after last year, and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden resigned earlier this week.

Paterno's regime ran the ball and believed it would always be tough. O'Brien's recipe for playcalling is not so much a completed concoction as a list of ingredients, set to the side, ready to be stirred as O'Brien sees fit.

This year Penn State ran the ball on 55 percent of plays (last year it ran and passed at a nearly even split). That percentage fluctuated, particularly in league play. Penn State ran less than 50 percent of the time in the first two Big Ten games and then about 60 percent of the time over the next five games before passing 52 percent of the time in the final game.

"I like to be balanced," O'Brien said after the Purdue game. "I like to do things that are best for the football team ... whether its' a play call or a recruiting strategy or a game strategy. I don't like to do one thing versus the other."

The coming months include the usual duties of a college football offseason. The Nittany Lions will recruit -- Penn State has 16 commits and can sign up to 20 per the reduction in sanctions (by enrolling athletes early, it could sign more).

They'll talk -- O'Brien meets with returning players to discuss their roles and conducts exit interviews with those who aren't returning.

They'll wait -- junior wide receiver Allen Robinson must make his NFL decision by Jan. 15 -- and they'll hope -- Senator George Mitchell could further alleviate the NCAA sanctions next September.

Nobody can predict O'Brien's possible NFL future. The NFL season doesn't end until later this month, and it's reasonable to think a few jobs will become available. To buy out O'Brien's contract, an interested team would need to pay the current fiscal year's base salary multiplied by the number of years left on the five-year contract. Leaving in January of this offseason would entail a buyout of about $6.65 million.

It was a year ago that he recommitted to Penn State, earning a $1 million bonus, and claiming his love for Penn State without closing the door on his dream of a professional coaching job. So much has happened since, and fans have learned more about their team's coach and the direction of his program.

He is living by Penn State's 2012 mantra: Move forward. It sounded like a buzzword, but O'Brien seems intent on taking Penn State not just further away from where it once was but away from where it has been under his short tenure.

Next year's team will feature a talented nucleus with returning players such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg, tight end Adam Breneman, cornerback Jordan Lucas and several skilled tight ends and running backs. It's up to them and O'Brien to ensure that these new directions steer them to a successful destination.

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

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