Bill O'Brien must select a new quarterback. He also must prepare his second Penn State team to face four opponents with new head coaches.
Away from the field, O'Brien could be plotting bigger adjustments.
Former Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt coach Gerry DiNardo said O'Brien can use Notre Dame's Brian Kelly as a template for how to handle his second season. O'Brien and Kelly, coincidentally, both attended St. John's (Mass.) Prep High School.
Kelly won eight games in his second year. His third Notre Dame team reached this season's BCS title game.
"I don't think you learn the most on the field," said DiNardo, a Big Ten Network analyst. "I think you learn about all the demands and how to handle all the demands. An example of that is Brian Kelly. People asked what he did this year at Notre Dame, and he said, 'Notre Dame is a huge distraction if you let it be.' I would say the same thing with Penn State, obviously with the circumstances they are going through."
O'Brien and Penn State are coping with the major NCAA sanctions levied against the school last year. The sanctions prevented the program from appearing in a postseason game and will limit next month's signing day haul to 15 players. The program added seven new players, including five on scholarship, last week. The early enrollees count against 2012 recruiting numbers. The postseason ban lasts until 2015.
Penn State went 8-4 in O'Brien's first season. DiNardo said he knew little about O'Brien, the New England Patriots' former offensive coordinator, before Penn State selected him as Joe Paterno's permanent successor.
DiNardo first met O'Brien while interviewing the coach for the BTN last winter. DiNardo said O'Brien's demeanor "blew him away."
Replacing Paterno, who led the program for 46 years, amid the investigations pertaining to the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal placed O'Brien in a difficult spot. His challenges expanded with the announcement of the sanctions, which included a disruptive waiver allowing players to obtain penalty-free transfers until August 2013.
O'Brien's ability to connect with the 2012 team on an "emotional and personal level" impressed DiNardo.
"His coaching style is so much different than Joe's," DiNardo said. "Joe was a CEO guy. Bill is hands-on. He's calling the plays, he's competitive in practice, he's running the walk-through, he's vocal. I say this a lot: Matt McGloin and Michael Mauti are going to eventually coach for him because they are just like him. When you connect with those guys on that team, you are going to connect with the team."
After interviewing for multiple NFL head coaching jobs earlier this month, O'Brien conducted a one-year anniversary news conference last Monday. He held his first team meeting of 2013 that same morning. In a surprising move two days later, defensive coordinator Ted Roof, one of O'Brien's close coaching friends, left Penn State to accept the same position at Georgia Tech. O'Brien quickly promoted secondary coach John Butler to defensive coordinator.
Butler wants to remain involved in the secondary by coaching either cornerbacks or safeties. Butler is deferring to O'Brien when it comes to filling the open defensive position.
The 43-year-old O'Brien started his first season started immediately following last November's season-ending victory over Wisconsin. The logistics of study halls, strength and conditioning tactics, and the offense, defense and special teams are some areas of the program under review.
"There are a lot of things we need to improve on," O'Brien said. "Everything that we do in the program already has been and will be continued to be reviewed."
DiNardo already considers O'Brien a valuable asset to the conference, which went 2-5 in postseason play and has added new coaches Gary Andersen (Wisconsin) and Darrell Hazell (Purdue).
"The league needs Penn State to be good, the league needs Penn State to be great," DiNardo said. "For him to do what he did this past year, he far exceeded a lot of people's expectations. The better Penn State is, the better the Big Ten is. It's not going to be as good as it can be until this probation is over. Penn State has to maximize its resources to be as good as it can be. Obviously, the head coach is a big part of that."
Notes: Penn State will face Michigan in its homecoming game on Oct. 12. The Nittany Lions and Wolverines haven't met since 2010. ...Penn State commits Zayd Issah (linebacker, Central Dauphin) and Andrew Nelson (offensive lineman, Hershey) were selected to the Pennsylvania Big 33 team. Pennsylvania coach Art Walker of North Allegheny announced the team Saturday after watching film with other high school coaches at the Lasch Building.