Joe Paterno remembers 1983, and he wants to make sure his players remember it, too. After Penn State won its first national championship, in 1982, the Nittany Lions stumbled out of the blocks the next season by losing their first three games en route to a 7-4-1 record. "We were a little too cavalier about everything," says Paterno. After winning title No. 2 last January, the '87 Lions will not be complacent. Paterno put his team through one of the most physically demanding spring practices of his coaching career. "We're going at this thing as if we have something to prove to the world."
Seventeen starters graduated from the team that shocked Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, a school-record 13 of whom were drafted by the pros. And while the schedule is somewhat less than intimidating—Rutgers, Cincinnati and Bowling Green will be fed to the Lions during the first five weeks—the official mood at University Park is one of "guarded optimism."
Last year's team depended on an airtight defense and the kicking game to keep opponents under control. But with the loss of punter John Bruno and seven starters on defense, Penn State must put more points on the board if it is to contend for another title. Indeed Paterno has hinted that he will open up the offense. Most of that production will come from unfamiliar players. Only one offensive starter returns to a skill position: wide receiver Ray Roundtree, a likely early-round pro draft pick.
The new quarterback is fifth-year senior Matt Knizner (pronounced KIZZner), who many felt should have started last year over John Shaffer, who has departed. "Matt has always thought of himself as the starter," says Paterno. "He'll be a fine quarterback, the best in the East." The 6'2" Knizner, who was elected offensive captain by his teammates, has a stronger arm than Shaffer and is also quicker afoot.
"I see myself as the kind of quarterback who will make things happen," says Knizner, "the kind who will take a chance. If I have to run, I will." He'll probably have to. Only two starters are returning to the offensive line, Stan Clayton and Steve Wisniewski.
On defense Penn State will continue its tradition as Linebacker U (eight first-team All-Americas since 1968). Pete Giftopoulos (see story on opposite page) will return at inside linebacker, as will Trey Bauer. On the outside Paterno expects junior Quintus McDonald, a much heralded prep sensation in 1984, to finally realize his potential. "Linebacking is an art here," says McDonald, "and it took me a while to learn that. In high school I just went after the runner. That's not what they want here. Now, I'm going to do it their way."
Also returning is Eddie Johnson, who the coach says is "the best cornerback we've had here," and at tackle will be a part-time starter from '86, Pete Curkendall—if he works out his classroom difficulties. The kicking game isn't up to snuff, but the only formidable opponents Penn State will face until bowl time are Alabama, which plays the Lions in a nationally televised game the second week of the season, Boston College, a rejuvenated Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. Un-guard that optimism, Penn Staters. If their heads don't outgrow their helmets, these young lions should roar.