Penn State Nittany Lions (2000: 5-7)
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Coach and programDuring his 35 years as Penn State’s top man, Paterno has a gaudy 322-90-3 record. But, in his last 16 games, Paterno is just 6-10. Unfortunately, Joe Geritol’s losing ways continued this offseason.
First, PSU’s recruiting coordinator Al Golden left Happy Valley in the middle of recruiting season to run Al Groh’s defense at the University of Virginia.
The most crushing blow came just before Signing Day when the nation’s top-rated high school senior running back, Kevin Jones of Cardinal O’Hara (Pa.), announced early that he would attend Virginia Tech (where he’s been offered Michael Vick’s old No. 7) rather than the play for the Nittany Lions.
After the loss of Jones, Paterno had to endure one more loss, when key recruiter Kenny Jackson left the nest to be the receivers coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So, for the first time in several years, Paterno went outside the system to bring in secondary coach Brian Norwood (from Texas Tech), wide receivers coach Kenny Carter (Pittsburgh) and linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden (Maryland).
Now 74, Paterno is getting up in years -- a fact that is used against him on the recruiting trail. Many are suggesting that he’ll coach another year or two before handing over the keys to long-time assistant Fran Ganter.
But that’s in the future. Paterno will begin this season with 322 career wins, one behind Bear Bryant’s all-time D-I wins record. Getting to the top spot won’t be a formality -- Penn State opens with national title contender Miami at newly renovated Beaver Stadium. And the Nits must tackle a tough schedule with only 10 returning starters (four on offense, six on defense).
Paterno will be breaking in a new quarterback and must re-tool the offensive line and secondary. However, his defensive line should be one of the best in college football and he has a nice stable of running backs. So the pieces are in place for Paterno to play the defense-first, special teams-second, offense-third approach that has served him so well over the years.
OffenseRedshirt junior quarterback Matt Senneca (6-3, 226) isn’t blessed with the strongest arm in the nation and doesn’t have the foot speed or elusiveness of his predecessor, Rashard Casey. He’s also rather inexperienced. But Senneca, scheduled to succeed Casey as quarterback this fall, is far and away the best option Penn State has.
“I think I’m the more traditional quote-unquote Penn State quarterback,” Senneca said. “Coach Paterno always says don’t move around in the pocket if you don’t have to. If it’s his choice, he wants you to stay in the pocket and throw the ball.”
Even with the tough-as-nails lead blocker Mike Cerimele no longer on campus and with all-everything prep star Jones choosing Virginia Tech over Penn State, Paterno has a nice stable of runners in 2001. The question is whether top returning rusher Eric McCoo (5-10, 209) will be part of that mix.
McCoo, a senior who rushed for 692 yards last season in Paterno’s tailback-by-committee offense, sat out most of the spring to concentrate on his academics. If McCoo is unable to get his academic house in order, then junior Larry Johnson (6-2, 214) and senior Omar Easy (6-1, 245) will get the majority of the carries.
At tight end, the primary guy will be John Gilmore (6-4, 265), who will be out to prove that he’s a tight end who can catch as well as block. The senior from Reading shared the starting role with Tony Stewart last season.
Widely criticized for dropping passes last season, Bryant Johnson (6-2, 203) looks poised to become the finest PSU receiver since Bobby Engram the next two years. Johnson, who made five catches for 103 yards and one score in the Blue-White game, is blessed with NFL size and speed.
With three big holes on the offensive line left by the graduation of Kareem McKenzie, Imani Bell and guard Jordan Caruso, senior Gus Felder, one of Penn State’s biggest players (6-5, 317), is one guy who can step in and fill those oversized shoes.
Defense and special teamsWith nine new starters, Penn State finished in the middle of the Big Ten rankings in almost every defensive statistical category last season. But the defensive line is the one area where PSU defensive coordinator Tom Bradley is comfortable.
The leadership mantle will be passed to mammoth and gifted junior defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy (6-5, 320). Kennedy, who had to slim down from 420 pounds when he arrived at Penn State in 1998, racked up six sacks and 42 tackles last season, including nine tackles for losses.
Senior Shamar Finney (6-2, 237) will be the anchor in the middle. With senior Ron Graham’s status in limbo (academic woes) and redshirt freshman Tim Johnson (6-3, 226) limited by nagging injuries this past spring, Finney emerged as the leader of the defense.
Along with quarterback and offensive line, the secondary is a huge area of concern for the Nittany Lions, because cornerback Bhawoh Jue, free safety James Boyd and cornerback Titcus Pettigrew are gone.
Penn State’s kickoff returns should be in good shape with Larry Johnson (24.7). Either wideout Rod Perry, if he doesn’t quit football to concentrate on baseball, and cornerback Bruce Branch, who ran back two punts for touchdowns in 1999, will return punts.
Bottom lineIn a league with many mysteries, Penn State has a chance to rebound from its worst season in 50 years.
But it won’t be easy. The non-league schedule is rugged, especially for a team breaking in a new quarterback and retooling its linebacking corps and secondary.
If Senneca is steady and the Lions’ retooled secondary holds up against the Ken Dorseys, Zak Kustoks and Kurt Kittners they’ll face, then Penn State might be able to finish a game or two over .500.
If not, it could be another sub-.500 season for Paterno, who will become Division I-A’s all-time winner some time this autumn.