So many of Penn State's rites of spring have become extinct over the past 20 years: The Phi-Psi 500, The Regatta and, lest we forget, Gentle Thursday, to name just a few.
But one tradition remains as strong as ever: Namely, the Nittany Lion athletic department opening up the first 20 minutes of its football program's initial spring practice session to reporters; and veteran PSU coach Joe Paterno bouncing the media on its collective ear 19 minutes into the window.
“GET THOSE CAMERAS OUTTA HERE!” is his familiar refrain, throwing fear into the cub reporters and drawing knowing smiles from the old-school scribes. And so it was Saturday morning at Holuba Hall, where Paterno and his Nittany Lions gathered for the first of 14 practice sessions to be held before the April 22 Blue-White Game.
With 13 senior starters lost to graduation, Paterno, pushing 80 but attacking the drills with the enthusiasm of a redshirt freshman, huddled up with the press before practice began but offered few details of what folks should expect this spring.
“I think we have the makings of a good football team,” he said. “… If you've got three and a half hours, I'll tell you what we need to get done.”
Defensively, the defending Big Ten and Orange Bowl champs lost three-quarters of their line and the entire starting secondary. But Paterno is comfortable with the returning talent in the defensive backfield — “most of those guys have been in games” — and said the line should be in good shape with the return of 2005 starting tackle Jason Alford and former starting tackle Ed Johnson, who missed last fall due to a disciplinary suspension.
“Eddie was a good player before he got himself in that jam,” Paterno said. “I think we'll be OK.”
The other issue on defense, obviously, is the right knee injury that knocked Butkus Award winner Paul Posluszny out of the Orange Bowl. Though the ligament damage did not require surgery, Paterno said he was taking no chances with playing his star in the spring.
“I'm not gonna play Paul,” he said flatly. “Paul wants to do some things, but I'm not gonna stick him in there. That would be foolish.”
While he was outfitted with a heavy brace Saturday, Posluszny did not wear the red-cross jersey designating players out of action due to injury. And when asked if he felt he'd get to participate in contact drills this spring, Posluszny was hesitant to give a definitive “no.”
“I'm sure toward the end I'll get a little bit, as far as linebacker drills and stuff like that,” said Posluszny, who has bulked up to 238 pounds while dropping his percentage of body fat to 6.34. “But as for actual scrimmages and going against the first-team offense, I don't know if I'll do that.”
Offensively, all eyes are on junior quarterback Anthony Morelli, who is faced with the task of replacing Big Ten Player of the Year Michael Robinson. Morelli is more of a drop-back style quarterback than the fleet-footed Robinson, and without going into details Paterno said that will have an impact on the offense.
“We'll emphasize some things a little bit more,” he explained. “Morelli wouldn't be the kind of guy you would want to count on running the football as much as we did with Michael Robinson. … But Morelli has got a chance to be a real good quarterback.”
As Morelli sees it, adjusting the offense to his skills is important. But there is another factor equally vital.
“Just being a leader,” Morelli said. “I learned a lot of things from Michael Robinson last year, and one of the biggest things was leadership; the way he led the team on and off the field.”
Meanwhile, Penn State must also replace four of five starting offensive linemen. The lone returnee is a good one, though: All-American tackle Levi Brown. He is anxious for the team's first spring scrimmage, which will take place Wednesday, to find out who among the new faces can cut it.
“I just want to see what everyone can bring to the table,” Brown said. “You read about all the guys in the papers. But you don't really know what they can do until you go against the defense in a scrimmage situation.”
For his part, Paterno sidestepped a question about the offensive line. Come to think of it, he sidestepped several questions. And come to think of it, that's another rite of spring in Happy Valley: namely, the coach saying meeting the press before drills serves no purpose.
“I don't even know why we're talking right now,” he offered. “I said to our sports information people, what in god's name can I tell them? I don't know what's going to happen. We have to go to work.”
And with that he was off to practice, a session that, 19 minutes later, included the amusing annual spectacle of the media being shooed out of Holuba Hall.
• The first practice lasted two hours and players were only in “shells” (helmets, jerseys, shorts and no pads).
• Paterno said redshirt freshman quarterback Daryll Clark can't practice in the spring because he is a partial qualifier. Clark dressed for Saturday's practice but was in a red cross.
• True freshman linebacker Navorro Bowman, who enrolled in January, will not practice this spring while recovering from shoulder surgery.
What went down during the portion of the practice that was not open to the media? Check out our TAP coverage for the lowdown. See the link here.
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