GENARO C. ARMAS
STATE COLLEGE —
It’s all about milestones this season at Penn State.
Tailback Evan Royster is poised to break the school’s career rushing record, just 480 yards shy of newly minted College Football Hall of Famer Curt Warner’s two decade-old mark of 3,398.
Creaky Beaver Stadium is about to host its 50th season of Penn State football.
And, invariably, there’s always some record or milestone within reach for Joe Paterno, and his 45th season as the Nittany Lions coach is no different. JoePa is just six wins shy of joining Eddie Robinson and John Gagliardi in the 400 career victories club.
“When I’m down and looking up,” Paterno said, drawing laughs at Big Ten media days in Chicago this month as he held his arms out with palms up, “are they going to put 399 on top of me, or are they going to put 401? Who the hell cares? I won’t know.”
The legion of blue and white faithful most assuredly will be keeping track, not just following Paterno’s wins and losses, but the Hall of Famer’s health and stamina. He will be 84 in December, though laser eye surgery this year has Paterno able to see without the aid of his smoky, thick-rimmed glasses.
This summer, Paterno missed the Big Ten offseason meetings in Chicago along with three alumni functions around the state because of an intestinal bug and an overreaction to antibiotics.
He made one brief public appearance at Beaver Stadium in June – he was fine, he said – before finally addressing a throng of media for the first time in three months at conference media days.
Nothing serious, he said in Chicago. Reporters peppered him about his health, conference expansion and the Nittany Lions’ Sept. 11 showdown at Alabama, though he didn’t get one query directly about his team.
The biggest question around Paterno typically involves around some variation of how much longer he’ll be around.
“But right now I have no plans whatsoever as far as whether I’m going to go another year, two years, five years or what have you,” said Paterno, in the second year of a three-year deal that will take him through 2011. “We’re just going to hopefully have a decent year this year.”
How decent will depend in large part on who steps up at quarterback with record-setting Daryll Clark having graduated. That leaves control of the spread HD offense to one of two sophomores, Kevin Newsome or Matt McGloin, with true freshmen Paul Jones and Robert Bolden considered longshots.
McGloin, a former walk-on who was the third-stringer last year, feels he has a good chance at the top job though he may not be as fast or athletic as the highly recruited Newsome.
“It makes me work harder, use it as motivation,” he said.
Whoever calls the shots will have steady playmakers to lean on for help, including receivers Derek Moye and Graham Zug.
There’s also depth at running back, led by Royster. Offensive coordinator and position coach Galen Hall describes his third-year starter as a between-the-tackles back who does a lot of things well.
Warner thinks Royster is a steady force.
“I was a little shiftier, more erratic,” Warner said. “But the object was to get up the field.”
As always in Happy Valley, question marks lie with the offensive line, which could be reshuffled after last year’s starting tackles graduated. Whether he plays center or guard, Stefen Wisniewski is being counted on to lead a unit that must quickly adjust to protecting a new starting quarterback and avert a potentially disastrous trip to national champion Alabama in the second game of the season.
The big hole on defense will be at linebacker, where mainstays Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull must be replaced after going to the NFL.
Penn State has lots of young, highly rated players waiting to step in, so the question is whether Paterno can find the right combination.
Three starters are back in the secondary.
Perhaps the most noticeable absence early on will be at defensive tackle, where 6-foot-5 Jared Odrick is gone. It will be up to Devon Still, a promising junior, to fill Odrick’s spot on a line led by two returnees in tackle Ollie Ogbu and end Jack Crawford.
The question marks on both sides of the ball and special teams have most picking at least a three-loss season given a schedule that includes games at Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State.
“A lot of people say this is going to be our down year and we’re young, but we’re not going to accept that,” Still said. “We’re going to go out there and prove everybody wrong.”