UNIVERSITY PARK - While new Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien was working hard to find this spring who would be his quarterback, there's also the matter that some of the Nittany Lions receivers will be changing.
"We've move Bill Belton from wide receiver to running back,'' O'Brien said. "Another change is that we've moved Curtis Drake from receiver to the field corner spot.''
In addition to the moves of Drake and Belton, the status of fellow wideout Devon Smith was up in the air for off-the-field reasons. O'Brien talked about those issues - along injury rehabs, putting together an offensive line and secondary and the progress being made by the new strength and conditioning program - in about a half-hour press conference at Beaver Stadium on Monday before holding his first spring practice with the Nittany Lions.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Penn?State head coach Bill O’Brien watches his quarterbacks work out during the first day of spring practice on Monday.
O'Brien said on Sunday at the Central Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame that one of the goals for this spring would be to balance out the roster. He reinforced that point Monday, saying this was the time to start determining who might fit where on Penn State's 2012 three-deep roster.
"You'll see changes. The spring in many ways is a lot like mini-camp in the National Football League. The spring is about experimentation, maybe practicing a guy at one spot for about five practices and then maybe move him to another spot and see how he does in different areas in trying to get your best players on the field,'' O'Brien said.
In another position change, defensive end Dakota Royer has been placed at tight end.
The moves of Drake and Belton both shore up areas where depth was lacking. In the secondary, the Nittany Lions graduated all four starters; Drake actually projected as a cornerback when he first committed to Penn State but made an impact as a freshman on offense before injuries and off-the-field issues derailed him for a while.
"The discipline issues, since I've been here, he started with a clean slate with me like all 126 players here. What I saw with Curtis on the football field was good size, good feet, good hips, instinctiveness. I think he's a guy who can contribute [at cornerback],'' O'Brien said. "[Depth in the secondary] is definitely an issue just numbers-wise. We don't have enough players over there, and we wanted to make a move that made sense.''
The secondary got another boost when O'Brien also reported that cornerback Derrick Thomas would participate this spring. Highly touted coming out of high school, Thomas spent much of his Penn State career in the late Joe Paterno's doghouse.
Drake and Belton both saw time as wildcat quarterbacks in the Lions' last three games of the 2011 season. Belton averaged 5.0 yards per attempt on 13 carries.
"We just felt in our staff's opinion that was a more appropriate position body-type-wise, skill-wise,'' O'Brien said.
Long speculated, the Belton move became an even bigger necessity with O'Brien's revelation on Monday that back-up running back Curtis Dukes was out for the spring while working to improve his academics. Essentially, the only other tailbacks on the roster are returning starter Silas Redd and walk-on Derek Day. Incoming freshman Akeel Lynch will join the squad in the summer.
Royer becomes part of a group of tight ends that have drawn a lot of attention because of O'Brien's success using the position as an assistant coach with the New England Patriots.
"That's a very important part of what we're going to do offensively,'' O'Brien said. "The more [tight ends that you have, the more difficult it is on a defense. I've been really impressed with Garry [Gilliam], with Jesse James, who really should still be in high school, Kevin Haplea and Brian Irvin. These guys have had good winters.''
On the injury front, O'Brien said linebacker Michael Mauti would not participate in contact drills this spring as a precaution, but that things were looking good for defensive end Pete Massaro, who is coming off knee surgery.
"He'll be out there in the spring, and he's going to be hard to block,'' O'Brien said.
O'Brien joked that his offense will have a hard time moving the ball against Ted Roof's Penn State defense. Part of the concern on the offensive side is because four of the Nittany Lions' starters along the line have used up their eligibility.
"The guys that will be playing there haven't played a lot of football, except for [Matt] Stankiewitch, our center,'' O'Brien said. "We'll really make judgment off spring practice.''
While O'Brien confirmed that defensive end Shawn Oakman would not return after being kicked off the team for an unspecified reason, the Penn State coach was uncertain what would happen with Smith.
Penn State's Daily Collegian reported Monday that, according to a search warrant, police seized drugs from the house of Smith and graduating Lion defensive end Jack Crawford. Smith is the Nittany Lions' second leading returning receiver after Justin Brown, catching 25 passes for 402 yards last season.
"I'm still gathering information on that. We'll have something to report at a later date,'' O'Brien said.
O'Brien also was asked about the progress the Lions are making under new strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald.
"You can see where Fitz and his assistants and his program have had a direct effect on different guys already, like with Adam Gress, the offensive tackle for us. You can see he has already changed his body,'' O'Brien said. "You go to looking more like a v-shape, and that's what you're looking for from your linemen.''
O'Brien said that the coaching staff still was in the process of working out exactly how it would work together, but he thought that didn't have to be addressed right now. First things first, finding out about his roster was the immediate priority.
"Right now, our job is to really evaluate this football team and see who our best players are,'' O'Brien said, "and who are going to play the most football for us in the fall.''