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May 24, 2011

More questions than answers facing Penn State

After running into each other several times on the national championship trail over the past few decades, it was only fitting that Nebraska and Penn State were be selected as cross-divisional rivals when the Huskers join the conference this year.

To get an idea of what NU fans can expect from the Nittany Lions this season, we sat down with Cory Giger, Penn State beat writer for the Altoona (Penn.) Mirror and talk show host on ESPN Radio 1450 in State College and Altoona.

It seems like every Big Ten team came out of spring ball with major quarterback questions. From the looks of things, Penn State may be the worst off of them all?

"The major issue is the quarterback position. Rob Bolden, who started seven or eight games last year, no one knows his status yet at this point until the middle of May. He may transfer, so the starting quarterback, we don't even know at this point between Bolden and Matt McGloin, who started the last handful of games but had five interceptions against Florida in the Outback Bowl.

"So really the whole program is kind of in a mode in the early summer of not knowing who the leader is even going to be. Most people seem to think of Bolden as the frontrunner and will stay and will eventually be the starting quarterback this fall. At the same time, he tried to transfer in January after the bowl game, and Joe Paterno denied his transfer release. So really a major question mark at the quarterback spot. The third-string guy, Paul Jones, reportedly also is considering transferring, and most people seem to believe if Bolden stays, then Jones may end up leaving.

"Both Jones and Bolden came in and, depending the scouting services, were either four- or five-star recruits and among the top-10 or -15 quarterbacks in the country. Jones redshirted last year while Bolden ended up being the first true freshman to ever start a season opener for Joe Paterno. So clearly everything else on the team is kind of in a holding pattern until we find out who the quarterback is going to be."

Then you add in losing a running back like Evan Royster and two starters on the offensive line. How much concern is there about Penn State's offense right now?

"With the running back situation, Royster was the school's all-time leading rusher, had a little bit of disappointing senior season, but he was never really viewed here as being that superstar running back. They've got a guy now named Silas Redd that most people seem to believe can be a really exciting, electric running back. He's been compared some to Curt Warner, who was a college hall of famer back in the early 1980s who led them to the '82 national championship.

"Clearly it's still very early on for Silas Redd, but he's got a lot of those same characteristics: great feet, great vision once he gets into the secondary. Now, he's not guaranteed to be the starter because they've got a guy back named Stephfon Green, who will be a senior, an explosive guy who battled back from injury throughout his career. So it's going to be one of those two guys, and because people seem to have a lot of faith in the running back spot, they're not overly nervous about the offense.

"The offensive line is always an issue here. They lose Stephan Wisniewski, who gets drafted by the Oakland Raiders. The line here generally takes five or six games every season, no matter who's on it, to come into any level of cohesiveness. Obviously they don't play Nebraska until the end of the year, and their offensive line is usually pretty good by that point. The line that they have, and really the overall offense that they have, will undergo some major shifts and changes by the time we see Nebraska again."

At least the defense returns eight starters from last year. How much do you expect PSU to lean on that unit while the offense figures itself out?

"The defense was a major, major disappointment last year. The defensive line was the biggest disappointment on the team. I believe they had just 17 sacks for the entire season, which is really just a dreadful number here. They ever got pressure on the quarterback. Two of their defensive ends - Jack Crawford, Eric Latimore - they've battled injuries and didn't play all spring.

"Pete Massaro suffered a major knee injury and will miss the season, so their three top defensive ends, we don't really know what to expect from them. Crawford and Latimore missed time last year, but they weren't all that effective anyway. So the defensive end spot is really a major question mark going in.

"They should be set at the defensive tackle spot with Devon Still and James Terry, and they have DaQuan Jones as well. They generally have good depth at the defensive tackle spot, but they just lost a big guy last week in Brandon Ware, a 330-pound junior who did not qualify academically, so he is going to transfer down most likely to a Division I-AA school. So that hurts their depth. So the defensive line, which has always been a strength here, all of sudden now looks to be a question mark.

"The linebackers though should be very good. They have an outstanding group of young linebackers and a lot of depth here. Every linebacker that comes here is compared to the guys that they've had over the last decade - Paul Posluszny, Sean Lee, Dan Connor and Navarro Bowman - all those guys are in the NFL.

"A couple of the guys on this team that are considered possibly up to that level at some point would be Michael Mauti, the middle linebacker, and Gerald Hodges, an outside linebacker. They've got a young guy named Khairi Fortt who's moving to outside linebacker, so that should be the strength of the team, but as much as the defensive line may struggle, it's not like we're going to know a whole lot about the linebacking group until we can find out about the defensive line."

Considering all the history Nebraska and Penn State have over the years, what was the reaction up in State College when the Huskers joined the Big Ten and became Penn State's cross-divisional rival?

"People here were thrilled that Nebraska is going to be in the league. Penn State fans travel very well, and they're looking forward to going out to Lincoln, and I know the home fans are looking forward to seeing the Cornhuskers come out here. One thing that everyone says when Nebraska comes up is the 1994 season.

"That's talked about here frequently, even to this day, because Penn State's only won two national titles in '82 and '86, and a lot of people seem to think the '94 team either may have been their best team or may have been one of the best offenses in the history of college football.

"So all Penn State fans will tell you that they would've beaten Nebraska in 1994, and yet Nebraska ends up getting the championship. There is still that sense of somewhat bitterness from 17 years ago, but still, the overall feeling here is that fans are very, very excited to be playing Nebraska every year."

When Nebraska fans think of Penn State, most immediately picture Joe Paterno. Do you have any idea how much longer he'll be able to keep going? And is he still considered an effective coach?

"No one has the answer to how long Joe Paterno will go. Flat out no one. He had a really bad year last year. He was sick all summer, lost a lot of weight. We saw him in August at the Big Ten Media Days, and he didn't look very good. A lot of people thought last year would be his final year, but he ends up getting better as the season goes on, and now he's doing better health wise this year. He's walking around more in State College to get his body in better shape.

"This is the final year of his contract, but contracts don't mean anything with regards to Joe Paterno. He will coach as long as he is physically able to coach. That's really a copout answer, but that's the answer that everyone here has come to accept. Now, what kind of job he's doing? You can't sugarcoat it, he does maybe 60 percent of the duties of any other major Division-I college football coach.

"He doesn't recruit any longer off campus, he hasn't made a recruiting trip off campus in more than three years, and that was Terrelle Pryor. He doesn't make hardly any speaking engagements any longer. He shut off all his alumni speaking engagements for this summer. He basically does what he wants to do, and that's pretty much about it. No one can tell him what to do, and he doesn't do a lot of the things that every other college football coach in the country has to do off the field.

"Now, on the field, players will still tell you that Joe is very much involved, still very much in their face, he's still involved in personnel decisions, he has final veto power on who's going to be on what special teams unit or what have you. So he's still very well involved with team and the players, but obviously the one major question mark is he's 84 years old, and he's dealing with players who are 18, 19, 20 years old who are at a completely different technological age and mindset that he is seeing how he's 60 years older than them. So one major question is exactly how well he can relate to these kids off the field."



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