Winter of Change at Penn State

Even in off-season workouts, it is clear that new coach Bill O'Brien is putting his own stamp on the Nittany Lion program.

New Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien is quickly putting his own stamp on the program. The Nittany Lions' predawn winter workout outside the Lasch Football Building Friday highlighted many of the stark differences between O'Brien's approach and that of his predecessor, Hall of Famer Joe Paterno.

They ranged from the subtle (many of the players sporting facial hair -- which was frowned upon under Paterno) to the extremely obvious (even longtime beat writers could not recall the last time a winter session had been open to the media).

The biggest change, however, was that even in mid-February, the Nittany Lions were focused on competition. Directed by new strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, who O'Brien hired away from Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, the hour-and-a-half session featured foot races, wrestling matches and even one-on-one tug-of-war battles.

“It's important for these guys to understand when you walk off this field, there's a winner and a loser,” O'Brien said. “That's what we're doing right now. … Out here, that's what it's all about -- you either win or you lose. There's really no gray area in football. We try to make it fun, but at the same time we make them understand who's won and who's lost.”

Much of the session took place against a backdrop of heavy metal music blaring from portable speakers on the sideline. Though temperatures were in the mid-30s, Fitzgerald took the lighted artificial turf field in shorts and a T-shirt.

His pep talks were flavored with plenty of … well … spicy language.

“We better (bleeping) spring out of here and be ready to go,” Fitzgerald barked at the start of the session. “This better be our best (bleeping) winter workout.”

“Fitzy does a great job with the off-season program,” O'Brien said. “He makes it fun. It didn't always look fun out here this morning. But it's been a good start.”

Many of the players were yawning when they arrived at Lasch Building around 5 a.m. By the time the morning session was complete, though, the entire team was jumping and hollering.

Fitzgerald wrapped up things by breaking out what he called “The Tug,” a blue circular device with handles used for the one-on-one tug-of-war competitions. The battles featured offensive players against defensive players, with, as Fitzgerald noted, no rules.

“Whatever it takes,” he shouted at the players. “No holds (bleeping) barred.”

The offense won two battles, the defense one, with players and even staff members whooping it up as the action took place.

“The off-season is also about becoming a better competitor,” Fitzgerald said afterward. “We're always trying to find ways to do that, and the guys love it. These guys are top of the food chain, (saying), hey, I want to compete and I'm going to beat you or you're going to beat me -- I want to see who wins.”

Michael Zordich (left) and Gerald Hodges battle with "The Tug." Zordich won.

O'Brien said the winter workout sessions -- which are run by the strength staff, with the coaches primarily on hand in an observational capacity -- provide a good opportunity for the staff to learn more about the players. There are only two holdover assistants from Paterno's staff. And O'Brien did not arrive on campus full time until the day after the Super Bowl, where he served as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots.

As for allowing the media to watch the workout, O'Brien admitted there were some self-serving reasons behind that. This is a big recruiting weekend for Penn State, as more than 40 junior prospects are scheduled to visit campus Saturday.

“I think it's important to see that these guys are working really hard,” O'Brien said. “We've got a great staff here. We have a bunch of junior prospects coming in Saturday. We're just starting. There's no light at the end of the tunnel right now.”

There was some natural light at the end of the workout, though. As players left the field, the sun began to rise behind Mount Nittany in the distance.

It was the dawn of a new day in Happy Valley, both literally and figuratively.

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