He came from coaching under Bill Belichick, so it was only natural that Bill O'Brien would emphasize the importance of the players on his team knowing, understanding and above all executing their specific roles on the team.
Bill O'Brien (right) has seen the importance of knowing roles from the perspectives of a player and a coach.
But about two decades earlier and about 20 miles to the south, when he was a linebacker and defensive end at Brown University, O'Brien had already begun to understand the importance of putting the goals of the team ahead of those of the individual.
"I wasn't a great player," O'Brien said. "I just loved to play and if they asked me to switch positions I would switch at a moment's notice, just to help the team. Whatever I could do to help the team, run down the kickoff team, whatever."
In his first season at Penn State and his first season as a head coach anywhere, O'Brien is working hard to ensure everyone from the scout-team cornerbacks to the starting quarterback understands exactly where they fit in the 100-man puzzle that is his team, and ensuring that they understand that it is all being done for the good of the team.
"Coach O'Brien makes it a point to let every player know their role," safety Malcolm Willis said. "You have to fine-tune your role in order to win. That's the main thing allowing everybody to play to the best of their ability."
Belichick has become known for giving each of his players well-defined roles, at times asking established free-agent veterans to do things other teams might not ask because it meant they would mesh with the unit already in place.
"That's where I really saw what it would mean for a successful season," O'Brien said. "If you had guys that really understood their roles and embraced it like a Yancich, like a Hull, Ben Kline, Zordich, were not necessarily starters, but they went in there -- Brandon Moseby-Felder. They went in there and they accepted their role on special teams. Maybe they started some games, they backed up other games, but at the end of the day, they helped the team win.
"That's all it's about is helping the team win, being in that locker room after a win, that's what it's about. I think these guys are starting to understand that and hopefully we can continue to get them to understand that."
Penn State's players have praised O'Brien for his honesty and transparency, and say they've known where they stood with the team and what was expected of them since he arrived this winter. While that approach might have contributed to the losses of some players (Dakota Royer, Luke Graham, Shawney Kersey, Paul Jones), it's also helped other players flourish.
Jesse Della Valle, a former walk-on, has found a niche as a punt returner. Alex Kenney, who moonlighted at both cornerback and wide receiver early in his career, now spends all of his time slot receiver. Quarterback Matt McGloin can throw an interception or take a bad sack and know that he will be out for the next series anyway.
"Everybody really does know their role," senior linebacker Michael Mauti said.
Mauti has embraced his role as a leader, making sure to credit the team's other seniors at every turn for the example they've set but realizing that the microphones and cameras -- not to mention the eyes of the underclassmen -- will more often be pulled his way.
The tricky part about sports, especially those that involve as many injuries as football does, is that on-field roles can change. Players have to be able to adapt to new roles on any given week or even any given play.
Penn State's running back picture, thanks to some early injuries and the emergence of sophomore Zach Zwinak, changes by the week, it seems. But the running backs have realized that their role is to be ever-prepared to take their turn.
"Whether you play a lot or not, you get in the game, you have a certain job to do," Zwinak said, "and you have to do that one job to the best of your ability."
McGloin, who split time with Rob Bolden in 2010 and 2011, understands the mental challenge Penn State's running backs face in the by-committee approach O'Brien has used this season. But he also sees how it benefits the group as a whole.
"It's definitely difficult coming in and out of the game," McGloin said. "Those guys understand their role on the team. You have the big guys that can pound you, then you can bring in Day or Belton. It's tough for defenses to match up to that … All those guys have accepted their roles and will do their parts."
O'Brien the Player would appreciate that sentiment. O'Brien the Coach has come to rely on it.