During a mid-July workout quarterback Zack Mills, seven months removed from his record-breaking freshman season, received some impromptu advice from coach Joe Paterno. "We were laughing about the attention I've been getting," says Mills, who became the toast of Happy Valley by throwing for 1,669 yards, a freshman record, and nine touchdowns. "Then Coach said something that stuck with me: 'All that attention is like poison. It only kills you if you swallow it.' "
Mills was lauded for invigorating a moribund offense after the Nittany Lions had stumbled to an 0-4 start. Handed the reins late in the fifth game, at Northwestern, Mills engineered a game-winning drive and then helped Penn State win four of its final six. "Mills is young, he's bright and he's got good athletic ability, but he's got a ways to go," says Paterno. "He's not Moses yet."
A lefthanded passer, Mills combines a 6'2", 215-pound frame with 4.6 speed and a rifle arm. He's comfortable running bootlegs or keeping the ball on the option. "When guys first see him, they're like, 'Oh, he's a natural white quarterback, he's going to drop back and throw,' " says senior tailback Larry Johnson. "But he deceives people when he gets out and runs."
Mills will have several skilled Johnsons to help him. In addition to Larry, who rushed for 337 yards in 2001, wideouts Bryant Johnson and Tony Johnson combined for 1,370 yards and six touchdowns. Six starters return on defense, none more imposing than tackles Anthony Adams (59 tackles) and Jimmy Kennedy (51).
Although Mills and his mates prevented a disastrous season, the Lions' 5-6 record still meant that Paterno had consecutive losing records for the first time in his 36-year head-coaching career. Several players said that alleviating criticism of the 75-year-old Paterno is a motivating force. "I appreciate that," says Paterno, "but I've had great days, more than my share. I want them to win for themselves."