After his team bumbled to a school-record nine losses in 2003, Penn State coach Joe Paterno sees a couple of keys to rebounding this year. "Number one is we have to tackle better," he said, "and we have to catch the ball."
Running the ball more effectively would help, too. So would improved blocking and passing. And shoring up the worst special teams in the Big Ten. And becoming more aggressive on defense, particularly in pressuring the quarterback. And addressing the second-worst turnover margin in the conference.
Come to think of it, there is scarcely an area NOT in need of polish, including the effort of the coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley puts it best when he said, "We just have to get tougher." Physically. Mentally. Everywhere.
OffensePaterno and new offensive coordinator Galen Hall are in a bind. Veteran lefty Zack Mills is on track to smash the school record for career passing yards. But he has yet to survive a season without injury.
The backup is athletically blessed Michael Robinson, who also has seen time at wideout, tailback and even fullback in his career. It would make sense to make Robinson a starter at another position. But with no proven depth behind the top two quarterbacks, the staff can't afford to move him.
So Robinson will stay at QB and perhaps see spot action as a receiver. Hall has a reputation for developing effective passers. He likes what he's seen of Mills and Robinson, calling them "two talented quarterbacks."
Sophomore tailbacks Austin Scott and Tony Hunt both struggled as rookies largely because they did not have defined roles. Scott has great feet and a nose for the hole. Hunt is more of a power back. Both have good hands, which will be a key in Hall's ball-control attack.
Paterno said his wideouts "were horrible" a year ago. Hope for improvement could rest with Terrell Golden, a rangy redshirt freshman with all of the tools (size, speed, good hands) to excel.
The offensive line will benefit from the return of center E.Z. Smith from a season-long disciplinary suspension and the implementation of more zone blocking schemes.
DefenseThe linebackers were soft and slow last season, so Bradley is using new faces. "We just have to get tougher," he said.
Fullback BranDon Snow has been plugged in at middle linebacker. Speedy sophomore Paul Posluszny is the odds-on favorite to man one outside spot. True freshman Dan Connor, the star of PSU's most recent recruiting class, will get every opportunity to win the other outside post.
A series of late-spring suspensions for off-field misbehavior caused the staff to mix things up on the defensive line, and a once-deep area could wind up thin. To compensate, two former starters at other positions -- tackle Tamba Hali and linebacker Derek Wake -- have been moved to end. At 270, Hali was too light to play inside. And the athletic Wake should help revive a nonexistent pass rush.
The Lions are still undersized in the middle though, as projected starting tackles Jay Alford and Scott Paxson each check in at about 280.
The only hole to fill in the secondary is at right corner, where Anwar Phillips gets first crack at replacing ace cover man Rich Gardner.
SpecialistsDespite a 2003 disaster that saw Penn State finish last in the NCAA in average yards per kickoff return and allow three punt returns for touchdowns, Paterno refuses to appoint a special teams coach. The specialty units are not THE priority for anyone.
Final AnalysisPaterno must tighten up his entire operation, starting with a coaching staff that was confused at times last season and continuing with players who have yet to deliver in clutch situations against quality opponents. Discipline -- on and off the field -- has been another issue.
How to fix it? It began in the spring, when the staff focused on basics while putting the Lions through some of the most brutal practices any of them have experienced.
The talent to go bowling is there. But it won't happen unless Paterno returns to his hard-line ways of old.