Penn State could finally have some roster stability with the Nittany Lions opening preseason practice.
Coach Bill O'Brien said he was “very confident” the players who showed up for practice early Monday morning are committed for the season. The team held its first formal workouts since the NCAA leveled strict sanctions against the program, including a four-year bowl ban, for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Players who had nothing to do with the scandal were caught in the middle. Nine Nittany Lions have taken advantage of an opportunity from the NCAA allowing immediate transfers to play for other schools, most notably 1,200-yard rusher Silas Redd.
“I respect those guys. They made individual decisions,” O'Brien said about the transfers. “But I think we've got to start focusing, like I said all along, on the kids that are here... I think we're really good where we started today. We've just got to keep getting better every day.”
Sophomore Bill Belton, a former receiver, appears to be the top option to replace Redd in the reconfigured offense under O'Brien, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator. Fittingly, Belton has switched his jersey this year from No. 5 to No. 1.
Justin Brown was the latest player and second offensive starter, after Redd, to leave after the receiver was dropped from the roster Sunday. Brown, who would have been quarterback Matt McGloin's top receiving option, was also the first senior to leave the team following the sanctions.
Redd is going to Southern California. Punter-kicker Anthony Fera, one of the top specialists in the Big Ten, was also a key loss after he announced last week that he was headed to Texas.
Still, O'Brien has managed to hang on to the majority of his core players, especially on defense. As of the first practice, the roster stood at 109 players including walk-ons, or 92 percent of the roster as of July 23, when sanctions were announced.
“I'm very confident that the guys out here today are committed,” O'Brien said. “Again, it's day to day, but I'm confident in these guys... They got up at 5:15 a.m. to practice.”
According to the NCAA exception, players have all season to transfer, but lose immediate eligibility with their new teams if they play a game with Penn State.
This wasn't the kind of makeover that O'Brien expected when he replaced the fired Joe Paterno in January. But the NCAA took unprecedented action after accepting the findings of the school's internal investigation into the scandal.
O'Brien stressed repeatedly during his 10-minute session with reporters after morning workouts that the team understands why “we're in the position that we're in.”
“We've got to understand our responsibility to the community, to children, to child abuse organizations. That's No. 1. These kids understand we're going to talk about that quite a bit. We're going to show what we mean by that,” he said. “At the same time... they're hard-working, good kids. They're going to class and I'm proud to be their head coach.”
O'Brien also hasn't yet decided if there will be any changes to Penn State's blue and white uniforms, including the possibility of putting names on the backs of jerseys. The team's basic style makes for one of the most recognizable looks in sports.
One of the nine players who departed, backup quarterback Rob Bolden, was granted permission to speak to other schools before the penalties were announced July 23. Bolden, who fell out of favor with two coaching staffs, has since landed at LSU.