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PENN STATE COULDN'T HAVE SCRIPTED a better recruiting video. Shortly after accepting the 2007 Bednarik Award as the nation's top defensive player—the third straight for PSU—linebacker Dan Connor told a television audience, "The reason I went to Penn State is because it's Linebacker U."
It was one more highlight to add to the reel that had persuaded Paul Posluszny, a two-time All-America and winner of the 2005 and '06 Bednariks, to become a Nittany Lion. This was a reel that had also helped land LaVar Arrington, who was a national high school player of the year as a linebacker and running back. He had been recruited to play Division I basketball but chose to join the fraternity.
The Nittany Lions' unmatched success in developing great linebackers has become self-perpetuating. That 13 Penn State linebackers have been named first-team All-America 18 times in the last 40 years and have earned four Bednarik and two Butkus awards in the last quarter century would seem to indicate a focused master plan, but even the professor himself, Joe Paterno, admits there was no specific blueprint for turning his program into Linebacker U. "I have no idea why that happened," the legendary coach said last year. "I wish I was that smart." With typical understatement he adds, "We've had a lot of good linebackers." (There may not have been a map for success, but there is a book, Developing Linebackers: The Penn State Way, penned in 1977 by Jerry Sandusky, who coached with Paterno for 32 years.)
Paterno began churning out great players at this position soon after becoming head coach in 1966. He installed a four-linebacker defense, novel for its time, and the golden era of Nittany Lions linebackers soon followed.
Paterno's new defensive scheme demanded great athletes, and he found one in Dennis Onkotz, an All-America in 1968 and '69 who doubled as a punt returner. Next came Jack Ham, another tremendously quick player who was inducted into both the college and pro football halls of fame. And the All-America honors kept on coming with Charlie Zapiec, John Skorupan, Ed O'Neil, Greg Buttle and Kurt Allerman. Between '68 and '76, a Penn State linebacker was named first-team All-America in eight of nine seasons.
So many good players have played second-line defense that one of the best NFL linebackers Penn State has produced, four-time Super Bowl champion Matt Millen, actually played defensive line in Happy Valley.
In the 1980s Shane Conlan was the dominant force at outside linebacker. He made the '85 and '86 All-America teams and led PSU to a pair of undefeated regular seasons and a national championship as a senior, intercepting Vinny Testaverde twice in a Fiesta Bowl victory over Miami. A freshman on that title team was Andre Collins, who was an unheralded safety at the time. But in '88 he was switched to linebacker to better make use of his speed. By '89 he had led the team in tackles for the second time and was named an All-America before going on to play 10 seasons in the NFL.
In the late '90s Arrington and teammate Brandon Short were stars who then passed the torch to Posluszny and Connor. Sean Lee was poised to continue this proud tradition until he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament during spring practice.
Happy Valley is a place where linebackers are accorded equal if not greater status as the offensive stars—52 Penn State linebackers have played in the NFL, and the two best-selling jerseys of the last few years have belonged to Posluszny and Connor. And what's the highest praise a player can receive from Paterno? Says Posluszny, "Any time Coach Paterno tells a player he wants to move him to linebacker, that's one of the highest compliments you can ever get at Penn State. Some of our best all-around athletes were—are—linebackers."