Bill O'Brien will fit the Nick Saban mold at Alabama. Just ask his former players

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

Former Penn State offensive lineman John Urschel doesn’t mind stating the obvious: the Penn State team of 2012, “We were really going through the ringer.” The Nittany Lions watched Joe Paterno be dismissed and pass away in the span of three months while the Jerry Sandusky scandal rocked the university.

The man picked to fix the mess and replace the icon was Bill O’Brien.

“When they hired Bill, it was a godsend,” Urschel said. “The whole team absolutely loved the guy.”

After two years as Penn State’s coach and seven more coaching the Houston Texans, O’Brien has landed as Alabama football’s offensive coordinator. His former Penn State players told The Tuscaloosa News that UA has hired a coach popular with players, one who will fit the Nick Saban mold of high expectations and one who can craft an intelligent offense.

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“The single best characteristic he has is he’s never afraid to tell you what he thinks, he’s never afraid to tell you how he thinks things should be,” Urschel said. “If you have a good game, he’s going to be the first person to let you know how well you played; if you have a bad game, he’s going to be the first person to let you know and he’s going to let you know every single way you need to improve.

“When he’s making decisions about game plans and when he’s making decisions about playing time, everything is transparent, everything has a reason. You might not agree with what he thinks and what he says, but there’s really full transparency. That level of honesty and transparency was something we really valued as players.”

The Nittany Lions of that era were presented with more than a healer. They got a mind fresh from the NFL, then coming off of five seasons on the New England Patriots staff, and an offense that resembled what he was running for the Patriots. Urschel thinks the experience in O’Brien’s offense helped him as he progressed to the NFL, where he stayed for three seasons.

Former fullback Pat Zerbe thought the strongest aspects of O’Brien’s offense came from trusting his players to run much of it once the games began.

“To drill down a little bit, an offense that gives you an ability to get in the right play at the right time,” Zerbe said. “It was a huge learning curve for us, but a great learning curve because he really taught us the ability to get in the right play at the right time and giving the quarterback the ability to have control of that by having the checks.”

O’Brien even displayed that faith in quarterbacks who typically wouldn’t get it, as he did with Christian Hackenberg in 2013. Hackenberg was a true freshman entering the program when O’Brien taught him the offense, handed him the starting job and gave him the power to make changes and checks at the line of scrimmage in a manner not dissimilar to his Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady.

That tendency is notable as O’Brien starts his UA tenure given the heir apparent at quarterback is Bryce Young, with all of 22 career pass attempts.

Zerbe also praised O’Brien as having “a wealth of knowledge” of in-game situational football, citing the 2013 game against Michigan as an example.

Penn State, down 34-27, got the ball back with 50 seconds left on its own 20-yard line. As Zerbe remembered it, O’Brien knew wide receiver Allen Robinson had been a matchup problem, so O’Brien turned to him first. Putting Robinson on the left of a formation with three wide receivers to the right, Robinson had the room to create an opening for a 14-yard gain on the sideline.

The formation was more or less the same on the next play, and a Michigan defense wary of allowing Robinson to hurt it again left an opening for Brandon Felder on the far right side for 29 yards. The Nittany Lions scored two plays later and won the game in the fourth overtime.

Penn State was composed in the situation because O’Brien made sure they were.

“We practiced that earlier that week: being down, needing a touchdown to tie, under two minutes and one timeout,” Zerbe said. “It was almost rehearsal.”

In that instance, and in more general offensive installations recalled by Urschel, O’Brien is one to fit his offensive styling to the given group of players. That makes it hard to definitively say what O’Brien will run while at UA, but those who played for him before are confident whatever he does will work.

“I wish he was coaching at Penn State right now, that’s all I can say,” Urschel said.

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson