Those NFL connections he made as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots are already coming in handy in Happy Valley. NFL scouts are regulars at Nittany Lions practices—another one of the bevy of changes in the new era of Penn State football.
"It's a little different because if you did something wrong, they're writing stuff down the whole time," said senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill, of the team's top NFL prospects. "You just think, 'What are they writing?' But you have to get over it the best that you can."
Having scouts at a college practice isn't unusual. But under the late coach Joe Paterno's watch at Penn State, it was an infrequent occurrence at best—maybe during a bye week, or before a low-pressure nonconference game.
Paterno, for sure, had NFL connections. It's hard not to after 46 years on the job. And he's had plenty of players drafted.
It's just that Paterno just wasn't one to have scouts over much.
Contrast that to Wednesday's low-key, off-week practice for the Nittany Lions (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten). Eleven NFL teams showed up, including the Broncos, Browns, Jets, Steelers and Vikings. O'Brien made it a point to talk to at a few of the scouts before practice.
"Having coached in the NFL, knowing a lot of these guys coming to practice and having relationships with them, I don't really see any problem with helping our players advance to the next level by opening up practice and giving these scouts another chance to evaluate our kids," O'Brien said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press.
It may also make for a positive picture on the recruiting trail for a program beset with NCAA sanctions.
"It helps. It doesn't even everything out, but it's just another pitch that you can make (to recruits) that you are on the same level as any Top 25 team," said Sean Fitz, the editor for the website Lions247, which follows Penn State recruiting.
O'Brien kept the NFL ties in mind when he put together his coaching staff after being hired in January. Perhaps not coincidentally, O'Brien hired assistants with NFL experience for the skill positions of receiver (ex-Buffalo Bills assistant Stan Hixon) and running back (ex-Tennessee Titan assistant Charles London).
Besides being offensive coordinator, O'Brien himself was the quarterback coach for Patriots star Tom Brady. For a day or two, that was the only thing that the Nittany Lions knew about O'Brien, especially his well-publicized sideline spat with Brady on national television after the quarterback threw an interception in the end zone last December in a 34-27 win over Washington.
Lately, the pro-style offense has been humming with senior Matt McGloin at quarterback. O'Brien's play-calling is bold and entertaining, and shows flashes of the high-octane offense he used to run in New England.
The strength program, too, was overhauled. One wall at the team's revamped weight room is devoted to team leaders in various events in offseason workouts similar to those studied by scouts at the combine, like the side-to-side "football shuttle" or the 40-yard dash.
Every Monday in the offseason is devoted to combine prep. The program includes combine-like contests at the end of each winter conditioning and summer workouts. "By the time they've left here in four years, they've gone through their own combines four times," strength coach Craig Fitzgerald said.
The offseason program under Paterno favored a "high-intensity" training program with an emphasis on endurance. Players hit the exercise machines, hard.
Those machines are gone from the weight room, replaced by free weight stations, Olympic-style lifting and squats. Fitzgerald has called his philosophy "all-inclusive," and features speed, agility, explosiveness and "football-related flexibility."
Again, it's a change in Happy Valley. The workout philosophy itself is fairly common, but the effervescent Fitzgerald boasts that Penn State is cutting-edge.
"We always tell them, 'The No. 1 thing is very few of you guys will actually play in the NFL.' That's the reality of it," O' Brien said Tuesday. "So the No. 1 goal should be to earn your degree and play as good as football as you can for us."
O'Brien said he feels he owes it to his seniors. After all, he wants to show gratitude for sticking with the team after the offseason scrum that resulted when the NCAA allowed any Penn State player to leave following the sanctions. In the end, more than 90 percent the team stayed.
He also hopes that having NFL teams scouting at practice adds a buzz for a potential recruit.
"If you play well and produce on the field," O'Brien said, "you're going to be seen at practice, games, and you're going to have a chance."
Penn State next plays Oct. 20 at Iowa.