Bill O’Brien is preparing for his second Senior Day at Penn State, which features the pregame roll-call of each player suiting up for the final time in Beaver Stadium.
Most of the celebrated have been expected for quite a while, from former run-ons to a math genius to linebacker who swears he hasn’t even missed a practice as a Nittany Lion.
But a few will come as mild surprises – the guys who will be graduating but also giving up their final year of football eligibility in 2014.
Guys like offensive tackle Garry Gilliam, defensive tackle Kyle Baublitz and receiver Alex Kenney.
Gilliam and Baublitz, from Central York, started games this season and have played plenty of meaningful minutes. Plus, Gilliam had already petitioned the NCAA for a special sixth year of eligibility next season to make up for time lost to a severe knee injury that wiped out most of 2010 and all of 2011.
Then, Gilliam switched from tight end to tackle during this past offseason. Though an injury kept him out of spring practice, he has stayed healthy since the summer at his new position and has battled Adam Gress for playing time.
“I’m not going to get into the discussions because those are personal between myself and some of these guys,” O’Brien said today during his weekly press conference. “They sat down with me and they’ve decided to move on to the next stage of their lives next year. They’d like to be introduced on Saturday … so that’s what we decided to do.”
When talking about Gilliam and Baublitz, O’Brien said, “They’ve been really good players for us and good leaders for us. We’re looking forward to watching them play these last two games, especially this last home game.”
Baublitz disclosed his decision to media members after Saturday’s victory over Purdue. The redshirt junior has been his best this season as he’s rotated with Austin Johnson. His highlight was a four-tackle effort against Michigan, which included a blocked field goal to save the Lions in overtime.
“First of all, a great person, really bright guy, excellent student. Comes from a great family,” O’Brien said of Baublitz. “On the football field he’s a very, very tough kid. I don’t know if anybody even knows, the last three or four weeks he’s been playing with a bum ankle and he’s played through it and he’s played tough. That means a lot to us.
“When you play defensive tackle at this level, that’s not easy, the day to day practice regiment and then playing in the games. He’s meant a lot to us. I think the younger players I know the younger players look up to a guy like that and know he’s contributed a lot to this program.”
Kenney, a State College High product, also apparently will not return for his senior season. After making 17 receptions last season, the speedy slot receiver has virtually vanished from the field this fall. He has only three catches for 25 yards.
“He’s shown up to practice every week, he’s played hard, practiced hard and done everything we’ve asked him to do,” O’Brien said of Kenney. “ It hasn’t probably worked out for him on the field as much as he would have liked it to. But he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. Can’t say enough good things about Alex.”
The Lions will lose experience and potential leadership with Gilliam and Baublitz walking away.
But, O’Brien didn’t seem fazed at all.
“Nothing catches me off guard,” he said. “These are things that as the year ends … guys start deciding what they want to do. So these conversations have been ongoing for a while. I’m of the belief that these kids should have these conversations with me. They should be open dialogue and have a good, honest conversation about where they are in the program, what they’ve done for us as a program, and then what they want to do next. “
Of course, everyone knew it will be the end this Saturday in Beaver Stadium for the guys using up their last weeks of eligibility. Those such as former run-on fullback and team leader Pat Zerbe and math genius and weight room stud John Urschel and iron man middle linebacker Glenn Carson.
The focus this week will be on all of them.
O’Brien said they are “probably the most important” part of this game Saturday against Nebraska that could clinch another winning season.
“To me, (the seniors) set the tone every week. They showed our younger guys how to practice and came back with intensity, whether it was following a win or a loss. Again, they stuck with this university, they stuck with this program, and they didn’t have to after the sanctions came out. I think that says it all about this class.”