Column: Lions endured tough 2012

Bill O'Brien (foreground) and his squad overcame a ton of adversity in 2012.

It was a new year for Penn State football, and the Nittany Lions' new leader was resolute.

Just as the seasons change from winter to spring to summer to fall, 2012 was a year filled with significant and constant change for the program. Nearly every week, it seemed, would bring new challenges. The team, lettermen, alumni and fans said goodbye to Joe Paterno in January, only weeks after welcoming Bill O'Brien to the fold. The team's new coach spent the spring in a tour bus and shaking hands with fans from Connecticut to Virginia. O'Brien pressed the right buttons throughout the spring and summer and then, when the NCAA sanctions landed with a thud, somehow found a brand new set of controls and pressed the right buttons on those as well.

O'Brien's Lions, after seeing a few players depart, came together but began the season on wobbly legs. Penn State looked gassed and disorganized in a season-opening loss to Ohio, then simply could not make the key plays necessary to win the following week at Virginia. Observers here and around the nation wondered if the weight of the sanctions was too much to bear and if the dismal future many had predicted had already arrived. But O'Brien, and the leaders on his team, were only getting warmed up. Eight wins in the final 10 games followed, including a back-and-forth, overtime thriller against Wisconsin on Thanksgiving weekend that sent the fans into the offseason with hope for the future.

As people continued to question how the Sandusky tragedy could have ever taken place, and others questioned why the current players should be punished for the mistakes of others, the Nittany Lions blocked out the noise, stayed focused on their goals and simply produced, both on the field and in the classroom. They adapted to the changes around them, handled both small and large adversities with remarkable ease and somehow managed to blend the majority of the traditions of the Paterno Era with the unique energies and attitudes of O'Brien.

More challenges lie ahead in 2013. O'Brien has to keep the returning roster intact. Losing core players would be disastrous but losing even role players would tear away at the team's depth, which will be a far more precious commodity during the next few years than it will be for any other program. Penn State must craft its offense around a new quarterback, replace two of the squad's most ferocious linebackers in recent history and a dominant defensive lineman, build productive specialty units from a group that will be heavy with run-ons and, above all, find the kind of veteran leaders that ran the team this past year. None of those things will be easy, nor will the work the staff continues to do on the recruiting trail while saddled with scholarship restrictions.

There will be twists and turns throughout the winter, spring and summer, and even more once September finally arrives again. The same can be said of any year for any team, but those twists and turns were more pronounced for Penn State in 2012 than they were for most other teams. In his first year as a head coach, O'Brien showed his team his plan, and his team's ability to stick to it through those ups and downs was the key to the Nittany Lions' success this season and a blueprint for the success they hope to have in 2013.

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