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Column: Lions ahead of 2012 pace

Think for a second about the Penn State team that lost to Ohio in the 2012 season opener.

Young players like Lewis (7) and vets like Robinson (8) are both more comfortable with the system this spring.

We saw flashes of the team the Nittany Lions would eventually become, but they couldn't string them together. There were communication breakdowns in the secondary and along the offensive line. Matt McGloin threw for 260 yards but needed 48 attempts to do so. The defense gave up 300 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.

Now think about the team that finished the season with an overtime victory against Wisconsin.

No turnovers. Just two penalties. Offensive balance -- 179 yards and a score from Zach Zwinak, 200 yards and a score from McGloin -- and a defense that held the Badgers' powerful running attack to 3.7 yards per carry even without Michael Mauti in the lineup. Penn State battled back from a 7-point halftime deficit, then recovered from a late Wisconsin touchdown to win in overtime.

The Nittany Lions came a long way from the day Bill O'Brien was hired to the last game of the season, and when you think about it some more, they had a long way to go. For almost 50 years, they had played for one coach and in basically one system. For almost 50 years, they had been doing things, at practice and in the film room and in the weight room, one way, and then suddenly there was O'Brien asking -- OK, telling -- them to do those things another way.

Some teams take two or three seasons to adjust to a new coaching regime and what can be some pretty stark contrasts. The Nittany Lions did it in just over 10 months.

Just think of what they might be capable of now that the adjustment period is over.

The theme of the spring, from the quarterback competition to the linemen to the new complement of bodies in the secondary, has been "training wheels off." O'Brien and his staff laid the foundation in 2012, and in 2013 they're building on it. Rapidly.

"Last year we were literally walking in every day and learning a play we'd never seen before," right tackle Adam Gress said. "Now we've had a whole year of it and we're already running things now that we hadn't installed until camp last year."

O'Brien often said last spring and summer that he was throwing as much of his thick playbook as he could at his players during the spring, hoping much of it would stick. Now that much of it has stuck, the Nittany Lions can refine, tweak and, most importantly, play at full speed. The defensive coordinator, John Butler is technically new but the defense, players say, is basically the same.

"We know the defense more comfortably and right now we can adjust to it within the defense, do our own thing," defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. "We're way ahead of last year."

Knowing the plays and the schemes isn't the only advantage the 2013 Nittany Lions have over the 2012 versions of themselves. They've also had another year in the weight room under the watchful eye and raspy commands of Craig Fitzgerald. Last winter was about developing the correct form on the cleans and deadlifts. This winter, the Nittany Lions were moving some serious weight. Gress, for example, added 80 pounds to his squat in about eight weeks.

Knowing your responsibilities on a particular play is huge, but knowing your role in the context of the rest of the team is just as important. When he's not barking at them to pick up the pace in practice as a group, O'Brien is letting his players know on an individual basis what he wants to see from them this year. In many cases, they already know.

"If you're a starter, a backup or a special teams role player, he'll tell you that," safety Malcolm Willis said, "and he'll expect everything out of you at practice."

There are still a few roles that are to be determined. Will Garry Gilliam be a serious factor at tackle after his move from tight end? Will Trevor Williams stick at corner or return to the receiving corps? And, oh yeah, who will be the starting quarterback? The distance between where Penn State is today and where it needs to be at the end of 2013 is still significant.

But don't be surprised if the gap between where the Nittany Lions are on Nov. 30 and where they are on Aug. 31 isn't as wide as it was a year ago.

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