Staying the course in Happy Valley

When the heavy hand of the NCAA came crashing down on the Penn State football program last year for its involvement in the cover-up of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, there were some who thought the team would never recover.

The punishment doled out by the governing body of all things related to college athletics, which included a $60 million fine, a 4-year bowl ban and a significant loss of scholarships, was paramount to the 'death sentence' as it would make competing both in the Big Ten Conference and on the national stage nearly impossible, at least for the foreseeable future.

In the hopes of minimizing the impact on the current crop of talent on the PSU roster, the NCAA allowed anyone wishing to leave the program a one year window in which they could do so without adhering to traditional transfer rules, i.e. sitting out a season.

Some left; most stayed. And Penn State enjoyed a solid season in 2012, its first under head coach Bill O'Brien, by going 8-4 (6-2 in conference), making those long associated with the storied program obviously proud to still be so.

With the clock ticking on the NCAA's grace period, it is believed that the Nittany Lions won't lose any other significant pieces, thus allowing them to concentrate on putting their best foot forward as they look ahead to what promises to be another daunting schedule in 2013.

The full impact of Penn State's scholarship restrictions won't likely be felt until next season, but for now the current roster has a bunch of solid, if unspectacular players, chomping at the bit to get back out on the field and compete for the Big Ten Leaders Division title. The Lions aren't eligible to play in the conference championship game.

Despite the recent departure of sophomore Steven Bench, who was believed to be in the running for the starting quarterback job this fall, O'Brien is confident that the bulk of his core players will remain for the duration of their college playing days, and spoke after Penn State's spring game last month about the relaxed atmosphere a season removed from all the turmoil has brought about.

"This is the best time of their lives. They are going to a great university and they are playing a spring game in front of thousands of fans, in a stadium, in my opinion, the best stadium in the country. It is a fantastic atmosphere. I just want these guys to have fun. They deserve to have fun."

Penn State also lost some key players in the most recent NFL Draft, namely defensive standouts Jordan Hill, Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, but O'Brien knows that while challenges loom on the horizon, his players and staff have the right attitude as they set their sights on another season of competition on the gridiron.

"It's time for some of our younger guys to help fill the [leadership] role. So we'll see how that develops. But this year is a different year, and I think we've got some good guys coming back that played a lot for us last year, and that will be good for us."

Over the years, Penn State football has been synonymous with greatness. Joe Paterno, his legacy forever tarnished, deserved or not, built the program into a source of pride for the university, state of Pennsylvania, and everyone ever associated with it, and O'Brien is the man entrusted with reestablishing the Nittany Lions as a major player, both on and off the field of play. It is a task he doesn't take lightly, but embraces all the same.

As the former offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, and in large part due to the success his team experienced in 2012, O'Brien was courted by several NFL teams looking to fill their head coaching vacancy, but no job was apparently offered as he let it be known almost immediately, that while flattered by the attention, Penn State is where he wants to be.

The Nittany Lions return 16 starters and more than 35 lettermen from last year's solid team, which helped O'Brien earn both league and national coach of the year honors. Still, there is a ton of work to be done and so long as there aren't any more surprises over the next few months, PSU could be poised to enjoy another successful campaign.

Beyond that however, it's anyone's guess how this once revered program will fare.