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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Receiver Allen Robinson and his Penn State teammates are settling into a familiar offseason routine.
After the rollercoaster ride that was the 2012 season ended on a high note, status quo is the welcome norm as Bill O'Brien enters his second year as Nittany Lions coach.
"Last year, we didn't know Coach O'Brien too well," Robinson said. "I think definitely, as a team, he's a little more comfortable with us and the same thing with him."
O'Brien arrived in January 2012 to succeed Joe Paterno. But he shuttled between his NFL job in New England and State College for another five weeks as he finished up as Patriots offensive coordinator.
No such commute is needed this offseason. Now O'Brien can join strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, who oversees the offseason program, in keeping an eye on the players' winter weight and conditioning routine.
"We have a higher standard than we had last year. Coach O'Brien wanted to push us, but he didn't have a gauge of the team this early last year," Robinson said. "Coach O'Brien definitely knows a lot of the players a lot better. They're definitely going to push us a lot more than last year."
The most common answer from a handful of Penn State players was that they now know what O'Brien expects, from the offseason program to the complicated offense — and how that translates into success. Penn State finished 8-4 last season, exceeding expectations given the player departures and other distractions connected to the NCAA sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Players had nothing to do with the scandal. But they pushed ahead with an explosive offense, opportunistic defense and a strong senior class including star linebacker Michael Mauti and record-setting quarterback Matt McGloin.
It's the quiet down time of the offseason when new leaders develop, O'Brien has said. Three weeks before the start of spring practice, those leaders can emerge in the weight room or on the practice field for the pre-dawn conditioning drills in the chilly winter air.
"The second year of the program, it's a big jump from the first," defensive Brad Bars said. "You know what to expect. You know what the goals are. You know how he's going to treat you. So it's all about proving yourself."
Last year, Fitzgerald oversaw the changeover in the weight room to barbells and weights. He focused on getting players used to the new routine including core lifts, power cleans and squats. They started slow, Fitzgerald said, just like O'Brien had to start slow in getting the offense familiar with the new playbook.
"That groundwork and fundamental work has been laid," Fitzgerald said. "Now we can start pushing a little weight and getting after it a little bit."
But things can't entirely stay the same. Tweaks are added to help keep things fresh. O'Brien and Fitzgerald find new motivational phrases, players said.
The players who have been around the current regime for a year can now offer the incoming players advice themselves. And of the 14 departing seniors who plan to take part in Penn State's "Pro Day," for NFL scouts, a dozen have spent all or part of their time in Happy Valley training for the draft, Fitzgerald said.
"That's the best way," he said. "That kind of shows them the light."
Robinson said his goal was to add about 10 pounds, and weigh in at 208 soon — adding muscle to help withstand the pounding that comes with going over the middle for catches, or blocking on the edge. He was a breakout star last year as a sophomore with 77 catches for 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Among other players, offensive lineman John Urschel was down about seven pounds from his listed weight last season of 307; and tight end Jesse James, who emerged as a pass-catching threat, has lost six pounds to 258.
Cornerback Adrian Amos, linebacker Mike Hull, safety Malcolm Willis and defensive end Deion Barnes are also among key players who are considered to have made conditioning strides in the offseason.
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