Most of what Garry Gilliam remembers about Penn State's first spring practice under Bill O'Brien involved running … and running … and running.
Justin Brown and the Penn State receiving corps are working on a new set of routes.
"I think I lost probably seven pounds that practice," the big tight end said.
The Nittany Lions' tight ends, as well as the wide receivers and the running backs, plan to do a lot of running in open spaces this fall. Figuring out exactly where they're running has been one of the big challenges of the spring but if all goes to O'Brien's plan, opposing defenses will have even more trouble figuring out where Penn State's receivers are going.
"Probably every day we've had practice, he's installed new stuff," Gilliam said. "At least 10 routes a day. It's kind of the same type of schemes, it's just which receiver's running which route."
Gilliam has played mostly the "Y" tight end position, which typically does more blocking and less receiving than the "F." But he's also played some F and, like New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez did last season, has lined up in the backfield as well.
"It's not anything different or crazy that is specifically scheduled for the tight end," Gilliam said, "it's just the way that the plays are set up allows us to get into that open area."
The tight ends knew they would have an expanded role in the passing game from day one, but it's been a change for the wide receivers, too. Senior wide receiver Justin Brown was careful not to reveal too much about the playbook but his eyes got a little wider when he discussed the new offense.
"There are a lot of different routes," said Brown, the team's leading returning receiver. "I think one of the biggest differences is the route tree. Without getting too much into it, the route tree is a lot different."
Most of Penn State's assistant coaches, including wide receivers coach Stan Hixon and tight ends coach John Strollo, worked with O'Brien on previous coaching staffs. But none were with him in New England, which means the offense is just as new to the assistants as it is to the players.
"It is (new), and they're not shy to admit it," Gilliam said. "Our tight end coach says he's learning it just as we are. He makes mistakes, we make mistakes; we're all learning it together. But the mistakes are what makes it stronger."
O'Brien admitted Friday he wished the offense "was coming along a little faster" but said his players have been working hard at it. The Nittany Lions feel like they're getting a stronger grasp of the basic concepts, which will allow them to go into more detail during the summer.
"I think he's gotten the base of what he wants the offense to do, now we're kind of building off it," Gilliam said. "The whole pie's there; now we're just learning the schemes and exactly what he wants us to do with each position."
The goal is to have an offense that can attack defenses in a number of ways and keep those defenses guessing what will come next. The players realize it's going to take some time but they can see at least the shape of what O'Brien has in mind, and they like it.
"There's a lot of different things you can do off of routes and it has been one thing to master, learning different routes and how to run them, but it's all going to be beneficial come fall," Brown said. "It's hard sometimes but it's exciting, just knowing we have all those routes in our arsenal."
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