With only 66 scholarship players on the roster due to the impact of NCAA sanctions -- and a hard limit of 65 starting in 2014 -- O'Brien and his staff will take a cautionary approach throughout this training camp and beyond.
You have to gauge the health of the team on a daily basis, O'Brien said. (If) these guys are banged up let's have a walk-through instead of a blood bath. Or (if) these guys are pretty fresh (and) and things are going well in training camp, let's have a 50-play scrimmage. Not a 100-play scrimmage, like you can have at some of these other schools. But let's have a 50-play scrimmage and see what we do. Maybe have the starters only go for like 15 plays, and get them out and get younger guys in there.
It's just an ongoing process of evaluating where we're at as a team, he added.
A big part of what the Nittany Lions will do in training camp -- just as they did in spring ball -- will involve thud practices. Essentially, the plays or drills are run at full speed until the point of contact between the defender and ball-carrier. Then the defender thuds-up the ball carrier, but does not take him to the ground, which in theory reduces the risk of injury.
O'Brien learned the advantages of thud practices as an assistant with the New England Patriots. NFL teams have 53-man rosters (plus eight practice-squad players), and there is a limit of one full-contact practice per week during the season. So the thud approach is common.
When I went to the NFL, one of the things that stood out to me right away was we would have thud practices and nobody was on the ground, O'Brien said. These guys were playing on their feet and they'd thud the back up and let him keep running.
With college kids, that's hard, he added. But our guys are pretty good at it now. In the spring, I thought they did a really good job of that. Once in a while, we had some guys fall down or somebody tripped. But they would hit, face the guy up, be in proper position, let the guy go and let the other defenders get a good pursuit angle on him.
When the season rolls around, O'Brien intends to have just one contact practice per week.
Practice is practice, he said. But you have to make sure you're putting your best team out there on Saturdays. Injuries are going to happen. It's a violent sport. So what are you going to do to control those things?
When O'Brien was an assistant to George O'Leary at Georgia Tech and Ralph Friedgen at Maryland, he said, Man we hit. We hit a lot. And there were times when Patriots' coach Bill Bellichick would crank up the hitting in training camp.
So it is not as if O'Brien is averse to the concept of hitting in practice.
My reason for hitting (only) once, maybe twice a week is because of our situation, he said. If I had 85 kids on scholarship, I'd probably knock 'em around on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. But I can't do that.
How will this impact Penn State on game days?
Time will tell on that, O'Brien said. I think if you're smart about it we've come up with different drills that practice tackling without tackling, if that makes sense. (Taking) angles. We call it tagging off and being in proper position. But I think that's a question that maybe you should ask me in a couple of years.
In O'Brien's eyes, reducing hitting in practice can also be mitigated by recruiting players who are natural hitters.
You're a good tackler because you want to be, O'Brien said. There's a want there. You want to tackle through somebody. Guys who aren't good tacklers, sometimes it's technique and athletic ability, don't get me wrong. But sometime it's they're not really sure they want to make that tackle.