Bill O’Brien knew the questions were coming – if only because he and his staff have spent so much time on the same subject the past few days.
Penn State’s tackling, simply put, needs to get a lot better. And soon.
But he noted in his weekly press conference today that those problems have nothing to do with the way the Nittany Lions practice. At least not in terms of their overall method called “thud.”
This is where defenders hit ball carriers in practice but do not bring them to the ground. The goal is to simulate full tackling while cutting down on injured ankles, knees and arms. O’Brien has emphasized this routine when talking about NCAA sanctions and scholarship limits that have trimmed Penn State’s depth.
And yet, his team’s glaring defensive breakdowns — which led to giving up more than 500 yards and 34 points last Saturday night — “have nothing to do with thud. There are 120 teams in the country all basically practicing with thud. It’s very rare that teams go live anymore, especially if you look at pro football. … That’s trickled down to college.”
Rather, he said his players must be “in better football position, being aligned correctly. I thought we were aligned improperly sometimes. So those are things we can correct. We have to do better and will do better.”
The troublesome statistics are one thing, but watching Central Florida players repeatedly run around and even through Penn State defenders for huge gains was another.
As expected, Penn State’s rookie cornerbacks were particularly tested tough by one of the best passers they will see all fall. And O’Brien put some added perspective on the scenario.
“They learned a lot last week. They had their share of good plays and they had their share of not so good plays,” he said of corners Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams.
“Start with Lucas. I think he’s a really, really good player. He’s tough, strong, got good size, good ball skills. He made his share of mistakes on Saturday, but he also made some real good plays. He had a great tackle on the 5-yard line on one of their drives. Fantastic kid. He’ll get better and better and better because he works extremely hard.
“Really, I can say the same thing for Trevor Williams. He’s a fantastic kid.”
In preparing for Kent State Saturday, and for high-powered Indiana two weeks later, O’Brien said he and his assistants will focus on defensive technique and drilling. They will not overreact. They will not change their methods.
They will try to move around pass rusher Deion Barnes to help counter teams who are running away from him. Barnes has no sacks or tackles for loss yet.
The defense also will be aided by the continuing improvement of injured linebacker Mike Hull, who is still day-to-day.
“The way we practice is not unique,” O’Brien said. “There’s hundreds of teams out there that practice the same way we practice. … I’ve been places where we never hit (to the ground). I’ve been places where we hit every day and we couldn’t tackle anybody. Know what I mean?
“It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with proper technique. It has to do with wanting to make the tackle. It has to do with being aligned properly. It has to do with how you take the block on.
It will improve. … We watched the tape. We learn from it.
“We hit in practice. … We probably hit at Penn State more than a lot of teams that are out there. It has nothing whatsoever to do with that.”
Meanwhile, O’Brien said he has been pleased with the progress of his special teams, pointing out how new kick returner Geno Lewis nearly broke a big gainer for a score and how kicker Sam Ficken is probably the most improved player on the team.
However, he is pressing for more consistency from Alex Butterworth, who is averaging only 39 yards per punt, eighth in the Big Ten. To his credit, eight of his 13 punts have been fair-caught and not returned.
“I don’t mean to say that he’s punting poorly,” O’Brien said. “I think we have to get him to be more consistent because he can boom in practice, I’ve seen him do it in a game, 45-yarder, 46-yarder, then he has the 32-yarder. I just need him to be more consistent.
“I told him yesterday, ‘I think you’re a good punter. Let’s have some confidence going out there and booming the ball.’ That’s what we’re talking about doing.”