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July 25, 2013

New practice plan could pay dividends

CHICAGO - New England Patriots' offensive lineman Dan Connolly played his college football at Southeast Missouri State, earning all-conference recognition four consecutive seasons with 46 consecutive starts in the process.

After signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2005, he made the active 53-man roster but played in just four games, was placed on injured reserve in 2006, and was eventually waived by the team in 2007.

Picked up by the Patriots the next season, Connolly spent two years with Bill Belichick's 'Dirty Show' before landing a job on the 53-man roster in 2009, then becoming a full-time starter - save for a couple injuries - through the course of the last three seasons.

The lesson, according to Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien, is that full-time contributors can come from unexpected places and, maybe more important, attention to development of younger players is going to be a key component to the Nittany Lions' ability to navigate strict NCAA sanctions in the coming years.

"We've got a plan right now to do a better job with the developmental players, whether it's 'Dirty Show' or maybe some younger players that play a little bit in the game but don't play more than twenty plays," O'Brien said Thursday morning at the Big Ten Media Days.

As has been the case at many top college football program through the years, Penn State's coaching staff frequently spent an overwhelming majority of time focusing solely on starters and second-stringers during the course of a typical football season. Third- and fourth-string backups, and walk-ons, unlikely to see game action barring unforeseen circumstances, received far more instructional attention during bowl preparations and the team's spring practice session.

Of course, with sanctions severely hampering O'Brien's program from bringing in a full 85-scholarship roster, adjustments were made last season and, according to the Nittany Lions' second-year head coach, a well-thought out addition will be made to the practice schedule on Mondays during the upcoming 2013 season.

Though O'Brien prefaced his plan by noting that overall team health could alter his plans somewhat, he intends to match up the backups against each other on Monday afternoons in a scrimmage-like environment, with graduate assistants calling the plays on both sides of the ball, while the team's regular contributors condition with strength coach Craig Fitzgerald.

"We're going to have basically a 'Dirty Show' developmental scrimmage," he said. "Maybe let the graduate assistants call the plays and I'm going to watch it from afar and just run our base packages and just let the guys play.

"I thought about that a lot in the offseason because I remember one of the best things that Bill Belichick did in New England was, after every practice, he would take the practice squad guys and any developmental player that was on the 53-man roster that maybe wasn't playing a lot, and, they couldn't scrimmage because they didn't have enough players in the NFL, but maybe he was one-on-one offensive line/defensive line, wide receiver/DB, seven-on-seven with the wide receivers, DBs and quarterbacks."

Citing Connolly as the manifestation of that extra attention to practice squad players, O'Brien maintained that his new approach at Penn State could also provide dividends.

"(For Connolly), a lot of it has to do with the improvement of what they did in those post-practice sessions," he said. "So, I'm going to try to do something like that this year for those types of guys.

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