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Young at heart (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday August 16, 2005 1:59PM; Updated: Tuesday August 16, 2005 3:24PM
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"It's so hard to get you guys to appreciate where I'm coming from," Paterno recently groused to a pack of reporters. "I'm only interested in doing a job. I don't really care what people write about me. If they [write] tomorrow, 'This guy was pretty good -- at one time,' what's the difference? At least I was good at one time.

"If [legendary Texas coach] Darrell Royal called me up and said, 'Joe, you're doing a lousy job,' that would bother me. If [a writer] calls me up and says that, I'd say 'What the heck are you talking about?'"

They may not be saying it to his face, but privately, opposing coaches and scouts have been scoffing for years about the Nittany Lions' program -- saying Penn State has done a poor job of evaluating talent, its players aren't as well conditioned as its competitors and its offense is painfully predictable.

On the recruiting front, Paterno appears to have made appropriate changes. Since installing former Nittany Lions QB Mike McQueary as recruiting coordinator two years ago, Penn State has abandoned its longtime practice of filling the majority of its scholarships the summer prior to players' senior year of high school, leaving more room for elite prospects such as King and Williams who tend to decide later in the process. "We made a couple mistakes in recruiting four to five years ago," conceded Paterno. "A lot of those were kids who were recruited by guys who aren't on our staff anymore."

The conditioning critique may have been valid at one time, but it certainly didn't seem like an issue last year when the Nittany Lions' defense was among the toughest in the country and, unlike during parts of their 3-9 2003 season, they appeared to be fighting to the final gun in every contest. "The year before, we were getting beat up in football games," said Posluszny. "Last year, we were always within a field goal here or there."

The great mystery, however, is whether Penn State's long-suffering offense will be better after adding one gifted receiver (it's not yet known whether King will see time at receiver as well). Paterno's big shakeup prior to last season -- he replaced longtime offensive coordinator Fran Gantner with PSU alum and former Florida head coach Galen Hall -- produced no noticeable improvement, and quarterbacks Zack Mills and Robinson appeared to regress.

Heading into this season, Paterno insists fifth-year senior Robinson -- who, when he isn't playing receiver, was a dreadful 14-of-39 for one touchdown and five interceptions last season -- remains ahead of highly touted sophomore Anthony Morelli for the starting job. Williams -- of whom the faithful are expecting nothing less than a Ted Ginn Jr.-type impact as a freshman -- needs someone who can get him the ball.

Meanwhile, Penn State's top two running backs, Tony Hunt and Austin Scott, weren't exactly gang busters last year, either. Scott, much like Robinson before him and Williams now, was viewed as a savior-type recruit two years ago but ran for just 312 yards last season. "I think Austin Scott has to make up his mind as to how good does he want to be," Paterno said in the spring. "When I saw [him] in the high school tapes, I thought he was as good of a high school player as I have ever seen. He has got to be a little more consistent and grow up a little bit."

Looking Toward the Future

Precedent suggests this year's Penn State team will indeed fulfill Paterno's promise. After suffering through two sub.-500 seasons in 2000 and '01, the 2002 Nittany Lions enjoyed a 9-4 season that, according to Paterno, would have been even greater if not for some questionable officiating in overtime losses to Iowa and Michigan. Running back Larry Johnson, who, like Scott, hadn't done much of anything during his first three seasons, exploded for 2,087 yards. Receiver Bryant Johnson delivered the kind of big plays many envision from Williams. Veterans such as Michael Haynes, Jimmy Kennedy, Shawn Mayer and Gino Capone led a superior defense much the way Posluszny, cornerback Alan Zemaitis and defensive end Tamba Hali -- along with standout sophomore Dan Connor -- are expected to this season.

Penn State should be better, but will it be 6-5 better or 9-2 better? And would Paterno view such improvement as his cue to go out on a winning note or a sign that he's a year away from achieving something greater? On the flip side, what happens if the Nittany Lions fall short of .500 yet again? Will Paterno finally give in to the critics? Or will he try harder to right the ship?

Of all the factors that go into such a decision, age hardly seems to be one of them. As anyone who's been around him can attest, Paterno still has the energy of someone 25 years younger. "If they didn't have a calendar," said Paterno, "I wouldn't know how old I am." Says Pouslusny: "He has the most energy I've seen since I've been here. Especially in the spring, he was getting down and working with the players. He's really excited about this season, he feels this is the team that can turn things around."

Is it also because he thinks it might be his last? If so, Paterno isn't tipping his hand.

"I'm just trying to zero in on my family and football, I'm not thinking about anything else," said the feisty former Brooklynite. "When it comes time for me to get the heck out of the thing, I'll get the heck out of it."