Bill O'Brien has been Penn State's head football coach for nine months and has coached three games.

During that brief time, we've learned one undeniable fact - he's not afraid.

O'Brien may still ultimately fail in Happy Valley. After all, the NCAA has dealt him an awful hand. But O'Brien has made it abundantly clear that he will not play timidly despite the pitiful cards he's been given.

It started when O'Brien displayed the confidence to take the job in the first place. Replacing a legend such as Joe Paterno is never easy, but when that legend leaves under a mushroom cloud of controversy, the job becomes even more difficult.

Then, after spring practice, he went on a whirlwind tour of the Northeast in an attempt to re-energize Nittany Nation - a group that had become understandably depressed and angry in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.

O'Brien showed no fear, despite facing crowds that had largely adored his predecessor. Many of those folks were still fuming about what they perceived as Paterno's shabby treatment. O'Brien, through his force of will and no-nonsense personality, won over a large majority of the JoePa lovers.

He then took a leap of faith and named Matt McGloin as his starting quarterback in late May. The safe thing to do would have been to wait until just before the first game to name his starter. That's what Paterno probably would've done. But O'Brien liked what he saw from McGloin in spring practice and on tape. And he likely wasn't enamored with his other options - namely Rob Bolden and Paul Jones.


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So he went with McGloin, a former walk-on with obvious physical limitations and a gunslinger mentality. So far, that decision is working out quite well. McGloin has tempered his penchant for throwing into crowds and is having his best season ever (59-for-104, 56.7 percent, eight touchdowns and just one interception).

Bolden, meanwhile, transferred to Louisiana State, where he is buried on the depth chart, Jones has been moved to tight end and true freshman Steven Bench is now McGloin's primary backup. Moving a more experienced QB to tight end and elevating a true freshman within one injury of the starting job are risky decisions that could backfire on O'Brien. He made them anyway.

O'Brien took another risk when he decided to put names on the back of Penn State's jerseys. That flew in the face of tradition in Happy Valley, where the plain blue-and-white uniforms had become an institution. Many PSU fans were not happy, feeling the move was an unnecessary insult to Paterno's memory.

But O'Brien believed the players who stayed loyal to the program through an exceedingly difficult time needed to be honored.

"We want our fans to know and recognize these young men," he said. "They have stuck together during tough times, and I commend them for the leadership they have shown."

O'Brien has also displayed an aggressive approach to play-calling, especially on fourth down. The PSU coach has tried to convert fourth-down situations nine times already this season and succeeded on six of them. Last year, in contrast, PSU attempted just 18 fourth-down conversions over 13 games.

"Once we get really close to the 50, I'm pretty much not going to punt it," O'Brien said. "I'm just going to tell you that ... we're going to go for it. Unless it's fourth and forever."

That gambling attitude, of course, probably has something to do with his team's well-documented kicking woes. Sam Ficken is just 1-for-5 on field-goal attempts and Alex Butterworth is averaging just 37.3 yards per punt.

One gamble that didn't pay off, however, was using All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges as a kickoff and punt returner in the season opener vs. Ohio. Hodges is undoubtedly one of the best athletes on the PSU team, but he looked ill at ease returning kicks in the opener and hasn't been used there since.

But that's what happens when you take risks. Some will work out, while others won't. O'Brien knows that better than anyone.

He also knows that he has to keep taking chances. This Penn State team simply doesn't have the overwhelming talent needed to play it safe and still win games - a formula that Paterno successfully employed for decades.

Unfortunately, that talent level is unlikely to improve for several years. In fact, given the NCAA penalties, this may well be O'Brien's most talented team for five years or more.

So look for him to keep rolling the dice and hoping for the best.

It's really all he can do.

Fear is simply not an option.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.