"This time last year was a blur," the 2012 Big Ten Coach of the Year said. "I was trying to do as good a job as I could with our staff to keep our team together and get them ready for the first game. Obviously, personally, I didn't do a good enough job in that first game because we didn't win. Last year is last year and this is a new year. Hopefully, personally, I've done enough in the offseason to really study what we do."
O'Brien will get a chance to put his offseason work to the test on Saturday, when his team clashes with Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (3:30, Channel 6).
Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg have been jostling for the No. 1 spot at quarterback throughout training camp. No starter has been named, and O'Brien said they will both play this weekend.
Both quarterbacks are new in O'Brien's system, but there are many contributors who return this season with last year's late-summer whirlwind in their rearview mirrors.
"We have a lot of chemistry, we've spent a lot of time together," offensive tackle Garry Gilliam said. "Obviously, it gives us a better grasp of the schemes, especially on offense. We expanded pretty quick for the first part of the playbook and were able to get a lot of stuff in that we didn't get last year."
On offense, the Lions lost quarterback Matt McGloin to graduation, but there are standouts at every skill position.
Regardless of who is under center, he will have plenty of options with a deep receiver and tight end group. Allen Robinson caught 77 passes for 1,013 yards last season, while Penn State also returns three tight ends - Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Matt Lehman - who all scored at least twice in 2012.
In the backfield, Penn State will have a three-pronged attack led by Zach Zwinak and followed by Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. Unheard of prior to the last nine games last season, Zwinak accumulated exactly 1,000 yards on the ground and averaged 147.3 yards per game in November.
"Judging by the fact that I had [Zwinak] as the third- or fourth-team running back at the beginning of the year, I would say that that's some bad coaching," O'Brien said with a laugh at his news conference Tuesday.
Defensively, there are some question marks. The team is short on depth at linebacker and also starts Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas, two unseasoned cornerbacks.
Penn State, however, returns a handful of starters who made big contributions last season in linebacker Glenn Carson, defensive end Deion Barnes, tackle DaQuan Jones and defensive backs Adrian Amos and Malcolm Willis.
The last time Penn State took the field was when the Nittany Lions beat Wisconsin in overtime on Senior Day for a storybook ending to the season. But that was more than 9 months ago.
"It's not so much building on momentum from last year," O'Brien said. "It's more about, 'OK, what is this '13 team going to do?' "