Autumn will invade Happy Valley in the coming months, and yes, the ageless Joe Paterno will be leading his Nittany Lion Football squad through those epic Beaver Stadium gates on Aug. 30 with just as much desire, commitment and fire as any college football head coach in the nation.
The 81-year old Paterno, who has won 372 games at the helm at Penn State, is eager to get his team rolling into the Big Ten season, and hoping to put the program's off-field issues behind them.
Amid an off-season highlighted (did I really use that word?) by numerous criminal incidents involving Penn State players, the optimistic Paterno has kept his 43-year old system intact and hopes to build off its Alamo Bowl victory over Texas A&M last December.
Paterno, entering the final year of his four-year contract, has not yet re-signed a deal to coach at Penn State next season. With just an inkling of a monumental change like Paterno's departure on top of all the incidents during the past year, the program is faced with some instability going into the 2008 campaign.
Also, after losing two All-American Linebackers in as many years, Paul Posluzsny (34th overall pick in 2007 to the Buffalo Bills) and Dan Connor (74th overall pick in 2008 to the Carolina Panthers), the team was expecting Senior LB Sean Lee to follow in their footsteps at Linebacker U.
After three straight Butkus Award recipients in as many years from Poz in '05 and '06 and Connor in '07, all eyes were on Lee to keep the tradition at that position. However, after Lee suffered a major setback with a torn ACL in spring drills, the team is without the heart and soul of its defense.
One bright spot for the Lions regarding Lee is that he will be on the sidelines this season, and he is fortunate enough to have that good ol' medical redshirt in store. Lee will rehab and be back for 2009; that's some good news at least.
So, who will be leading this team seeking an appropriate identity? Despite losing starters at quarterback, running back, linebacker and cornerback, the Penn State team will be led by its veteran wide receiving corps.
This group includes Derrick Williams, the team's leading receiver, Deon Butler, a player with a knack for making big-time catches, and the acrobatic Jordan Norwood, all of whom played major roles in the offense last Fall.
While Williams will need to get more looks from whoever is playing quarterback for this team, this group is easily one of the most talented at the position in the Big Ten Conference.
However, one of the biggest questions looming after the Blue and White game in April is the quarterback situation. After rising senior QB Darryl Clark was given some legitimate reps and turned in an impressive effort in the Lions 24-17 win at the Alamo Dome, it seemed as if sophomore Pat Devlin would have to wait at least another year to gain the starting job at PSU.
However, after an impressive winter and spring that truly reminded both the coaching staff and the fan base of the true potential of the Pennsylvania native, Devlin will force offensive boss Galen Hall, QB coach Jay Paterno (yes, the big guy's son) and the rest of the coaching staff to make a very tough decision.
Clark's toughness and run-first mentality together with decent arm strength will be evaluated against the sharp technique and precision of Devlin, complemented by his above-average mobility.
Overall, there is a great deal of pressure on Paterno and his coaching staff, who have led the Nittany Lions to three straight winning seasons, all of which resulted in Bowl victories. However, 2007 came as somewhat of a disappointment to those associated with the storied program, as the expectations were to earn a BCS bid and even as high as the team's third national title.
The 9-4 campaign included poor, reserved offensive showings on the road against Michigan and Illinois, both of which resulted in losses but each by a touchdown or less. Also, the staff was criticized because RB Austin Scott, who was dismissed from the team because of criminal charges, and QB Anthony Morelli never really reached the potential that the scouts thought they could coming out of high school.
Morelli especially, who had good arm strength but was erratic in his accuracy, was ranked by USA Today as the No. 2 Quarterback prospect in the nation out of high school.
Also, WR Chris Bell, who faced charges off the field this Spring and was also dismissed, had a rare size-speed combination, but did not see much playing time last season as a sophomore.
Joe Paterno has been renowned for his discipline and no-nonsense approach over his many years coaching in University Park. After meetings with University President Graham Spanier, however, still there is nothing written in stone for the man who is easily the greatest icon in the school's history, largely due to his generosity in giving back to the University and its students.
Paterno still has the desire, as he has joked that he will coach for another 10 years. But who would have thought that he would have stayed with the same program for 59 years, both as an assistant and a head coach. Truly amazing.
Now, what does he need to do to prove that he deserves to be on the sidelines in 2009? Two things: Prove that he can still keep control of his players, both on the field and off; and prove that he can utilize the talent that he has, despite the adversity facing the program.
LB Dan Connor (All-Time Tackles leader, Round 3, Pick 11: Carolina Panthers)
RB Rodney Kinlaw (1,329 yards after taking over the starting job midseason, Undrafted)
WR Terrelle Golden (Undrafted: Philadelphia Eagles)
QB Anthony Morelli (Undrafted: Arizona Cardinals)
CB Justin King (Round 4, Pick 2: St. Louis Rams)
LB Brandon Beachum (Youngstown, OH) Equipped with power, size and toughness.
RB Stephfon Green (Bronx, N.Y.) Senior season: 14.8 ypc, 9 TD at John F. Kennedy High
LB Mike Zordich (Youngstown, OH) Strong lateral movement, tackling technique and overall toughness.
LB Mike Yancich (Washington, Pa.) Excellent athleticism, speed and lateral movement.
**Recruit Strengths courtesy of Scout.com**
In the running game, Evan Royster, a standout last season as a true freshman, will be replacing Rodney Kinlaw as the full time back. Royster's 6.1 ypc last year was a pleasant surprise for a program that was looking for a leader at the position after losing Tony Hunt and Larry Johnson in recent years.
Royster scored the decisive touchdown on a breakaway run against Texas A&M last year, putting Penn State ahead for good. Another major bright spot for Penn State is Stephfon Green, an underrated freshman tailback who opened many eyes at the team's Blue-White scrimmage this spring.
With a breakout opening drive touchdown down the sideline, Green seems to have a decent amount of talent, but he will obviously need some time to start developing as Royster's backup. Another bright spot for the running game is the solidified offensive line, led by veteran center A.Q. Shipley.
Defensively, losing Lee, Connor and King hurts. Penn State football is known for a rugged defensive style, and in order for this to hold true in 2008, a few players need to be productive.
Junior Maurice Evans, who led the team with 12.5 sacks last season, is a huge weapon for coach Paterno if he keeps reeling in the numbers and pressuring opposing QB's at the D-Line position.
Anthony Scirotto and Lydell Sargeant also need to be lockdown in the secondary for this team to defend the passing game. Justin King had a tough time last season with height mismatches, and these two backs need to keep their heads in the game and reach maximum potential as senior leaders.
Also, the team will look to LB Tyrell Sales (50 tackles, three sacks last year) to fill a huge void at linebacker.
So mark your calendars, Nittany Nation, because the answers to these burning questions will unfold in the coming months, just in time for the anticipated 2008 season.
2008 PENN STATE FOOTBALL SCHEDULE:
AUG. 30 COASTAL CAROLINA (I-AA)
SEPT. 6 OREGON STATE
SEPT. 13 @ Syracuse
SEPT. 20 TEMPLE
SEPT. 27 ILLINOIS
OCT. 4 @ Purdue
OCT. 11 @ Wisconsin
OCT. 18 MICHIGAN (Homecoming)
OCT. 25 @ Ohio State
NOV. 8 @ Iowa
NOV. 15 INDIANA
NOV. 22 MICHIGAN STATE