For Nittany Lions, a new dawn

Posted: February 17, 2012

STATE COLLEGE - It's 5:15 a.m. on a Friday in State College, and Penn State head football coach Bill O'Brien struts onto his team's practice field outside the Lasch Football Building holding a cup of coffee.

"This is a first," O'Brien says, speaking to the two dozen or so reporters and cameramen standing behind the near endzone, "5:30 in the morning."

Forget what the clock says, the presence of the media at a Penn State practice is a first in its own right.

For decades under the Nittany Lions' old coaching regime, former coach Joe Paterno concealed practices as if they were top-secret government meetings. Aside from a 30-minute sneak peek at the team's media day late in the summer, only coaches, players and trainers were allowed to see any kind of team workouts. All of it was confidential.

But now, behind the new theme of transparency preached by O'Brien and his staff, media members were invited to watch one of the Lions' early-morning training sessions.

"I think it's really important for people to see that these guys are working really hard, that we've got a great staff here," O'Brien said following practice. "We feel like we're building something here. We're just starting. There's no light at the end of the tunnel right now, but we've got a long way to go. I just wanted to give you guys a chance to see how hard these guys are working."

While most students were snug in their dorm room or apartment beds, the Lions were running around gigantic hula hoops, bobbing and weaving through tall poles, and sprinting to and diving over track-and-field hurdles onto a padded mat. The early scheduling allows the Lions to comply with NCAA regulations without interfering with players' classes or routines.

Led by adrenaline-fueled strength-and-conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald, Friday morning's workout finished and ended before sunrise. Ladder drills began at 5:26 a.m., followed by high-leg kicks at 5:35, then group drills until halftime at 6:05. Each player completes two 300-yard shuttle runs by 6:28.

"The offseason is about becoming a better competitor, and we're trying to find ways to do that, and the guys love it," Fitzgerald said. "These guys are top of the food chain, kind of, 'Hey, I want to compete. I'm going to beat you. You're going to beat me. I want to see who wins and test myself against you.' So they love it. That really keeps me going."

It's 36 degrees outside. a wind chill of 29, and while most players don skin-tight cold-weather compression gear and athletic gloves, Fitzgerald wears only a blue Penn State cap (backwards), a gray t-shirt and khaki shorts. He has been around the football facility since around 3:30 a.m., however, working out on his own.

As he screams and hollers to his athletes 100 yards downfield, Fitzgerald uses berserk hand motions and a whistle to lead the practice with drill-sergeantintensity. His throaty voice takes a decent beating because of it.

"It probably sounds lousy all the time. It probably sounds pretty bad," Fitzgerald said. "It's always that way. I think if you're coaching hard, that's the way it sounds. If I had a good voice, I don't think I'd be earning my check too much."

Tuesday and Friday mornings, every coach, player and manager remains at the secluded on-campus field until the session ends at 6:45 a.m. Practice is followed by weight-training sessions scattered throughout the day. On Mondays and Thursdays, players sprint in the hallways of the Lasch Building, past photos of Penn State All-Americans and college football hall-of-famers, for linear speed and acceleration drills.

The training is part of a new system implemented by Fitzgerald intended to make the Lions a faster, quicker, more agile team for the up-tempo offense O'Brien wants to run come Sept. 1 against Ohio University. And as the days pass, more and more players are buying into the somewhat crazy routine.

"When a kid is competing in the offseason program and running, when they start getting tired and that gut starts burning," said offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, "the ones that can really push through that and learn to push through that - as they're doing now - [they will] really make the difference."

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