One of Penn State’s most prized talents, tight end Adam Breneman, started New Year’s morning with a tough workout in Lancaster.
It was typical business, in one sense. He and his Penn State teammates are always preparing for the next football season when not in the middle of one.
But in another way, it could be seen as a symbolic move. What better way to deal with yet another blast of turmoil and uncertainty than to forge ahead with your life’s work, with what is comfortable?
“At the end of the day you have to ignore the noise … you’ve got to put your head down and get to work,” said Breneman, the day after head coach Bill O’Brien informed him and teammates that he was leaving abruptly to coach the Houston Texans.
“I’ll tell you what, I’m working harder than I ever worked before,” Breneman said. “I got a taste for success (at the end of last season), but it’s not nearly where I want to be.
“I’m a Penn State guy. Barring unforeseen circumstances, I’ll be suiting up for Penn State next season. … We’ll be fine. I think Coach O’Brien left Penn State a lot better than when he got here. I don’t think you can find another guy who could do what he did in the situation he was in.
“The fans shouldn’t worry. We’ll be alright moving forward.”
Breneman was not only arguably the top tight end prospect in the nation when he committed to Penn State in early 2012. He and quarterback Christian Hackenberg became unquestioned leaders of a most critical recruiting class — then became foundation pillars when the university was rocked with NCAA sanctions a few months later.
They will be looked upon now to help hold the Nittany Lions together, once again.
The same goes for upperclassmen like Bill Belton and Mike Hull, who will be working with their fourth head coach in three years when O’Brien’s successor is named, probably within the next two weeks.
Meanwhile, all of them, including Penn State’s vast legion of alumni and followers, are uniquely caught between looking back while pushing ahead.
O’Brien not only left for the NFL over the holidays, he is doing so only precious weeks before another round of high school seniors and junior college players are preparing to sign a binding commitment or enroll in the university.
“It was pretty clear he was going to get NFL attention (this offseason), and he said before that the ultimate job was with the NFL,” said Brian Breneman, Adam’s father and a Spring Grove graduate. (However), I certainly am surprised to see him leave this year. I am surprised he did the make the jump at this point.
“I’m surprised he left this quickly. We were hoping he would be here throughout Adam’s career.”
Adam Breneman said he and teammates are handling the situation well and, sure enough, a large contingent of them have expressed nothing but support for O’Brien through social media.
“Coach O’Brien is a great coach and great person! Proud to have called him my coach. It was his dream to coach in the NFL, best of luck,” tweeted Hull, a senior linebacker next season.
“We all we got! No reason to panic or jump ship! Doesn’t matter the system nor the coach…players win games period,” tweeted Belton, a senior tailback in 2014.
For now, Adam Breneman, who surged down the stretch this fall as a true freshman, is focused on winter workouts, spring practice and the 2014 season, which begins in Ireland.
He is disappointed in losing O’Brien after only two seasons but said he understands. He spoke with his former head coach by phone last Saturday and then again late on New Year’s Eve, after news broke of his departure. He described O’Brien as “very honest and very open” in those discussions but declined to elaborate.
“I don’t think he intended on breaking his commitment (to his players),” Breneman said. “I don’t think he felt he’d be one of the hottest NFL coach prospects in two years. … I don’t fault him at all. … Maybe someday we’ll meet again on the next level.”
Central’s Kyle Baublitz also offers complete support to O’Brien. In November, the redshirt junior decided to forgo his senior season in 2014 to take his degree and pursue a teaching career. He said he was physically and mentally burned out on football.
“I made my decision and Coach O’Brien supported my decision, and I support his decision,” Baublitz said on Wednesday. “If you respected him, he respected you. It was never a one-way street for him.
“The only thing I wish is that he was there longer for the younger kids because he’s a great coach.”
Meanwhile, the transition from O’Brien to an unnamed new head coach, as expected, already is moving quickly, in small steps.
Reports say that highly-regarded and long-time defensive line coach Larry Johnson is temporarily in charge of the team and in trying to keep the 2014 recruiting class together. Other reports claim that receivers coach Stan Hixon, who recently coached for nearly a decade in the NFL, will be joining O’Brien in Houston.
Then there is the matter of interviewing potential head coaching candidates and naming a replacement, almost surely more expeditiously than the two-month process taken to land O’Brien in January of 2012.
Names that continue popping up as front-runners include recently-fired Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano, Miami head coach Al Golden, Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin and Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Munchak.
Schiano, also the former Rutgers head coach, was an assistant at Penn State under Joe Paterno. Golden was a team captain under Paterno and briefly coached for him. Munchak was a Nittany Lion All-American and Franklin is a native of suburban Philadelphia.
Through it all, current players, former players and incoming players, are being pulled between the past and the future. They just lost a leader who guided them better than most anyone could have predicted through a perilous time for the program.
They won 15 games in two seasons with only 60 to 70 scholarship players and O’Brien won national coach of the year honors in 2012.
Of course, there will be plenty of uncertainty, too, in the weeks ahead. Will the Lions’ prized receiver commitments still land in State College if Hixon, their position coach, leaves? Highly-rated defensive tackle Thomas Holley from New York has expressed that his future may depend on if Johnson stays or goes.
At least Brian Dohn, a national recruiting analyst with Scout.com, said he expects this key recruiting class of 19 players to stay mostly in-tact.
“Ninety percent of kids choose a school because they love the school and the players and the program,” he said. “And that’s the case with Penn State. Rarely will there be wholesale changes. It’s rare that you’ll see seven or eight kids leave a class. It’s not the way things are built.”
He said that should hold true despite another adjustment period when an unfamiliar leader finally is in place.
“The university is not just one person,” Baublitz said. “Everything Penn State has to offer is still there, nothing’s left.”