Enter O'Brien, who led one of the NFL's best attacks last season as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots and instructed a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Tom Brady.
O'Brien's philosophy entering the spring with his new team, one he has expressed often since being hired to succeed Paterno on Jan. 6, is that every job is open.
"It's a clean slate for everybody in this program," he said.
That means Matt McGloin, Rob Bolden, and Paul Jones all will get a chance to be No. 1.
"Those three guys will split the reps," O'Brien said last week in an interview with the university's football website. "Each guy will get a chance to work with the first team. We won't name a starter until later in training camp. We will give each guy a chance to win the job."
McGloin, who will be a senior in the fall, got most of the playing time last season, throwing for 1,571 yards and eight touchdowns. But his pass efficiency rating was down slightly from the year before.
Bolden, a junior, started eight games - including each of the first seven - in 2011 but completed just 39.3 percent of his passes, throwing seven interceptions and two touchdowns. With McGloin sidelined for the Jan. 2 TicketCity Bowl, he had a chance to post an impressive audition tape for the new coach but hit on only seven of 26 passes and threw three picks.
Jones, who has the strongest arm of the three, came in with Bolden but redshirted his first season and sat out last year because of academics.
Whoever wins the job will have to lead an offense that will play at a much higher tempo than before.
"We've got to play the game fast; we can't play the game at a slowed-down pace," O'Brien said. "We've got to put pressure on the opposing offense, put pressure on the opposing defense with our conditioning levels and our ability to play fast."
The Nittany Lions finished 9-4 last season, 6-2 in the Big Ten. They were in the race for the Leaders Division title and a berth in the conference's first title game but lost their final regular-season game, 45-7, to Wisconsin.
The child sexual-abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, which resulted in the Nov. 9 firing of Paterno after 46 years as head coach, cast a dark cloud late. With defensive coordinator Tom Bradley serving as interim head coach, the team finished 1-3.
In addition to quarterback, Penn State's biggest areas of concern entering the 2012 season are along the offensive line and in the secondary. The Lions lost four of five starters on the line, and all four starters in their defensive backfield.
Linebacker appears to be the team's strongest area, even though senior-to-be Michael Mauti will miss spring drills as he continues his recovery from a torn left ACL suffered in September. Gerald Hodges, a former Paulsboro High standout who made first-team all-Big Ten last season, leads the unit.
Defensive end Pete Massaro, a former Marple Newtown High standout who sat out last season with a torn left ACL, is healthy and ready to reclaim a starting berth.
In all, the Nittany Lions return 37 letter winners, including 10 starters from last season plus 17 players who have started at least one game. Spring practice will end with the annual Blue-White Game on April 21 at Beaver Stadium.
Contact Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494, or email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @joejulesinq