UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The New England Patriots offense is complex. It is predicated on diversity. It involves constantly changing formations and myriad pass routes for constantly changing receivers and tight ends. It is open, allowing freedom for the quarterback to make decisions and open in the sense that play-calling is tailored to the team‚??s health and the opponent‚??s weaknesses.
This offense is, more or less, Penn State‚??s offense.
When Penn State takes the field for the first time this season Saturday, it will be using a system learned and honed by Bill O‚??Brien for the past five years while he served as the Patriots wide receivers and quarterbacks coach and, finally, offensive coordinator. The offense was brilliant each season, consistently finishing among the best in the league.
Clearly, it worked in the NFL. Will it work in college? After all, instead of having top stars at their respective level like Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, the Nittany Lions have lost significant players from a team that ranked 11th in the Big Ten in scoring offense last year.
The early answer in these optimistic days of preseason camp is positive. O‚??Brien said two weeks ago his team had yet to gain an offensive identity. It did not have a concrete strength.
By last week, his outlook changed. In one scrimmage, he said, quarterback Matt McGloin had grasped the offense. Tight end Kyle Carter said the offense was starting to outplay the defense, a claim backed up by cornerback Stephon Morris.
"To be honest, that offense is crazy because of the formations they can give you on play-action, pass or run," he said. "You can just tell with the NFL-based scheme."
Ideally, that is how the offense will work. On one play, the backfield will be empty, with several receivers and maybe even two tight ends running routes. On the next, there might be two players in the backfield, a tight end running a route and two wide receivers who weren‚??t in for the previous play.
Tight ends will have the newest roles. Carter said last year he primarily was a blocker. He, along with three or four others like Garry Gilliam, Matt Lehman and Jesse James are now more active as receivers. Carter remembers watching New England in the playoffs in January and getting excited about his new role.
"It‚??s the exact stuff we‚??re doing now, so it‚??s just crazy," he said.
O‚??Brien added a caveat to that statement.
"I think we all have got to be real careful, because the two tight ends we had in New England are two of the best players in the NFL in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez," he said. "We‚??re not asking our tight ends at Penn State to be Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, we‚??re just asking them to block well and understand route technique and understand their assignments."
As much as formations will change, O‚??Brien wants the consistency in nuanced situations, like on short third downs or in the last two minutes of the half. He also wants consistency out of McGloin. Maybe more than any other player, McGloin will dictate what the offense does.
"They rely so much on the quarterback and the quarterback to get it the right way," McGloin said.
"Coach O‚??Brien puts a lot of trust in the quarterback."
O‚??Brien grants significant autonomy, but he also calls the plays.
His decisions will introduce the Penn State community to a new offense, though game one will just be one game. The offense has the potential to evolve throughout the season.
"I know Coach says he gets bored with what we‚??re doing," Carter said.
"I‚??m pretty sure there‚??s a lot more to it."