UNIVERSITY PARK - New Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien is bringing new meaning to "under the lights."
The Nittany Lions have been conditioning twice weekly at 5:15 a.m., and O'Brien opened Friday's session to the media. The drills - without footballs - took place outside on the illuminated practice field next to the Lasch Building and featured one-on-one physicality tests, sprints and the usual up-downs that Herman Boone (Remember the Titans) would have admired.
As dawn broke, the contingent moved inside to see how much weight it could lift.
The pre-spring practices are being held early to avoid conflicts with classes and to build camaraderie and resolve.
"It will help our athleticism, our unity and bonding as a team," offensive line coach Mac McWhorter said. "And toughness. I've already seen a lot of progress in a short period of time."
During his tenure at the University of Texas, McWhorter helped send six of his O-line products to the NFL. The offensive line, once a Penn State hallmark, has not consistently produced top talent over these past few years, although the Lions do have five offensive linemen on NFL rosters.
"It all starts with recruiting," McWhorter said. "You're not going to put a kid in the NFL just because you're a good coach. They have to have the innate ability. The kid has a lot to do with it. He has to accept coaching and develop, and sometimes it's being in the right place at the right time."
In seeking to rebuild last year's line that returns only center Matt Stankiewitch, McWhorter said he'll favor "productive," when asked what kind of player he prefers.
"I like athletic - the bigger the better without forsaking athleticism," he said. "It's really important in today's game that guys are able to move because the guys they block are the really good athletes."
He didn't rule out some position changes, perhaps a defensive tackle or end buried on a deeper depth chart, but McWhorter will enter the spring with an open mind.
"It's a fresh start for all these guys," he said. "We've got a long way to go, but just observing and getting to know the kids, I've been impressed."
The other assistant made available Friday - secondary coach John Butler - also is one presiding over a unit gutted by graduation.
Penn State has long played conservative defensively, allowing completions and keeping the play in front of the defender.
Butler sounds like he and new defensive coordinator Ted Roof will take a more gambling approach - even though the secondary returns no starters.
"We're going to be aggressive," Butler, who arrived from South Carolina, said. "Ted is not a guy that bends but don't breaks. We're going to be aggressive in everything we do - in how we stop the run and get after the quarterback. But that doesn't mean we're going to blitz all the time. What it means is hopefully we're not going to allow the offense to dictate to us.
"Are we going to be passive and sit back and let them punch us in the face all game long? We're not going to be that way. We're going to be a group that challenges the passing game. We're going to get up in receivers' faces - in man, in zone, we're going to bump them and re-route them and try to disguise and get in the quarterbacks' head."
Like McWhorter, Butler sees recruiting as vital to putting the pieces together.
"As we keep recruiting and developing our program, we'll probably have more elements of that," he said.
And that's where he believes the 5:15 spring workouts will be an asset and not a detriment.
"There's a certain type of player we want recruited here - tough, smart, dependable," he said. "That's why we're out there at 5:30. Some kids that may not appeal to, and that's fine. We'll move on.
"Kids want to be worked hard, especially Penn State kids. They want to be pushed and developed - whether it's at 5 a.m. or 2 [p.m.]."
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.