STATE COLLEGE - One potentially easy answer for Penn State's tackling problems has no merit, coach Bill O'Brien said, but whether that's a good thing or not isn't so easy to answer.
The Lions missed numerous tackles in Saturday's loss to Central Florida, leading fans and media to question whether the team's heavy use of thud work in practice is the culprit.
"It has nothing to do with thud; 120 teams in the country all basically practice with thud," O'Brien said. "Very rare that teams go live anymore, especially if you look at pro football."
Mike Hull and C.J. Olanyan make a tackle for Penn State last weekend vs. Central Florida.
Thud is when defenders hit offensive players but don't tackle them to the ground, and it's done to prevent players from getting injured in practice.
Linebacker Glen Carson also said thud isn't what has led to the poor tackling in games.
"I just really don't think it has anything to do with the thud tackling," Carson said. "There's hundreds of teams across the country that do the same thing, and it's really part of the game now."
OK, so it's not thud. What is it?
In some ways, it might be better for Penn State if thud actually was the problem. That would be a singular, identifiable issue that could be addressed and altered to some degree collectively in practice.
Instead, O'Brien himself pointed out that the tackling problems involve several components. They can be fixed, he added, but at the core they are mistakes being made by the players.
"It has to be being in better football position, being aligned correctly," O'Brien said of the tackling. "I thought we were aligned improperly sometimes. So those are things we can correct."
"Basically the missed tackles just came down to fundamental mistakes," Carson said. "We've just got to work on those fundamentals. There were definitely some mental mistakes, misalignments here and there. We just really didn't play Penn State football."
O'Brien also cited "proper technique" as a component, then he said something revealing about the mindset of defensive players.
"It has to do with wanting to make the tackle," he said.
That part, in particular, is intriguing because desire cannot be taught. Some defenders, such Troy Polamalu, just have an innate desire to crunch offensive players without regard for their own bodies, while others might not always seek out the most brutal contact.
It's too early in the season to tell if the Nittany Lions have enough sheer talent on the defensive side of the ball to handle the challenges they'll face in the Big Ten. Depth and talent levels on the line and at linebacker were some of the biggest question marks on the team before the season, and those things don't have anything to do with thud.
If it just came down to thud, then the coaches could come up with a plan B. But if the players on defense just aren't good enough at times to make the plays they need to make, that ultimately would be a more worrisome issue.
As for all the talk about thud and its impact, O'Brien said, "It's probably my fault because I came out and talked about the way we practice."
That was never the case under Joe Paterno, who didn't discuss such issues, and the media couldn't report on it because practice was always closed.
But former PSU receiver Derrick Williams said the team didn't tackle in practice during his career from 2005-08, and he played alongside some of the best linebackers in school history in Sean Lee, Paul Posluszny and Navorro Bowman.
"We never tackled. Never," Williams said.
"Paul never tackled in practice," he added. "Sean Lee never tackled in practice. Navorro never tackled in practice. Never. I remember one time when we were in practice Navorro did drag me down, and Joe kicked his butt out of practice."
O'Brien repeatedly said Tuesday that the way Penn State practices "is not unique."
"There's hundreds of teams out there that practice the same way we practice," he said. "It's not unique at all. I've been places where we never hit. I've been places where we hit every day, and we couldn't tackle anybody."
Thud or not, Penn State's defenders have to prove they don't fall into that last category.
Carson called Saturday's loss "a blessing in disguise" and said the team will be more focused because of it.
"You've got to hate to lose more than you want to win," he said. "I think that that loss was humbling to us, and I think the feeling of that loss, I don't think anyone really wants to feel that again."
Linebacker Mike Hull is still nursing a sore knee, but O'Brien said he is the only player facing anything more than typical bumps and bruises going into week four.
"Mike Hull wasn't 100 percent out there [Saturday]," Carson said. "My hat goes off to him, he's a real tough guy and he wanted to get back on the field as soon as he can for the team. But I don't think that he was 100 percent healthy."
There is now competition for one of the starting linebacker jobs as the depth chart lists Nyeem Wartman or Stephen Obeng-Agyapong in the top spot.
One of the defensive tackle jobs also is up for grabs as the depth chart lists the starter as Kyle Baublitz or Austin Johnson.
When deciding between two players who are competing, O'Brien said multiple components enter the equation.
"We look at the previous game, we grade that game, who's playing better coming out of that game," the coach said. "We really look at practice, who practices the best on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. That's the only thing that's fair to the guys. We don't just hide it. We show it to them on film. This is where the guy did a little bit better than you; he's going to start the game."
O'Brien said he does not expect any more true freshmen to play, so those who haven't seen the field yet are expected to redshirt, barring unforeseen circumstances.