Aug. 31, 2005
2004 Record: 4-7 (2-6 Big Ten)
Head Coach: Joe Paterno. Record at Penn State: 343-116-3
Starters Returning: Offense 8, Defense 9, Special Teams 2
In the past 40 years, there have been 765 head coaching changes in Division I-A football, and none of them have come at Penn State. With 40 years as head coach, Joe-Pa is second all-time with 343 career wins.
His Nittany Lions will have improvements to make in order to return to the top of the conference, after finishing ninth in 2004, but the players have a quiet confidence that things will be different this year.
"We want to win the Big Ten," said linebacker Paul Posluszny, "and we know we have the potential to do that. It's going to be really tough and a lot of things have to go our way, but the potential is there."
Senior Michael Robinson has been the utility man of the Nittany Lions for the past three years. He has started at quarterback, wide receiver, and running back. "He could be a heck of a safety, and in fact he'd be a heck of a linebacker," said Paterno of his new full-time quarterback. Paterno has called Robinson the best college football player in the country because of his outstanding skill at several positions. Entering the 2005 season, Robinson has almost 1,200 yards throwing, over 800 rushing, and over 600 as a receiver.
Now as he makes the transition to being a full-time QB, Robinson is excited to be able to focus on only one task. "I'm the QB and that's all I'm thinking about," he said. "I'm not thinking about playing receiver, or running back or anything like that. In my own mind, I've been a quarterback throughout my whole career, and I look at it as a role of honor and influence."
Robinson has earned the respect of his teammates since he arrived in Happy Valley, and even received some votes for team captain as a true freshman. This year, his teammates voted him captain, along with Alan Zemaitis and Paul Posluszny. "I never asked to be a captain," said the senior, "I just wanted to go out and try my best to win football games. Teammates see that attitude and respect it."
"I think the senior class as a whole has a lot of good leadership qualities," said Posluszny, a linebacker. "They really want to take advantage of the situation they have to turn things around here."
Robinson's big targets will be two true freshmen wide-outs Derrick Williams and Justin King. Williams was a prep All-American and one of the nation's top recruits, and adds tremendous speed to the Lions, whose receivers struggled last year. King will also bring speed and playmaking ability, especially after the loss of sophomore Mark Rubin to an ankle injury suffered in preseason.
Can the true freshmen really help turn around an offense that struggled to put up less than 18 points per game in 2004? Robinson says yes. "You see the optimism we're carrying around? That's all that should be said. Those guys are electrifying, I've never seen anything like it before," said the captain.
The receivers, along with tight end Isaac Smolko will help boost the running game, which had its problems last season. Junior Tony Hunt led the team with 777 yards and seven touchdowns, but will need help from fellow junior BranDon Snow, a former linebacker who will be returning to his natural fullback position. Both are solid options with great skill, and with some improvement in the o-line, should have a solid impact on the Paterno's offense. Austin Scott, who has been plagued with injuries, will look to exceed expectations and have a breakout season after showing a lot of potential early in 2004.
With more experience under their belts, four starters will return to the offensive line. Tackle Levi Brown should be the team's best blocker, and a potential All-Big Ten selection. Charles Rush, a junior guard enters his second year as a starter on the line, after spending one year starting on defense. On the other side, tough guy Tyler Reed will keep his starting spot at guard for the third straight year, and with a little consistency, could be the star of the front line. Lance Antolick, a former walk-on should step into the center role, and will continue to work hard and overachieve.
If the offense can improve, and the defense can stay healthy and consistent, the Lions are poised for an exciting year. Nine starters return from a stingy defense that allowed only 15.3 points per game, fewest in the conference. It will be difficult to improve on that statistic, but they're going to give it a shot.
On the inside, Jay Alford and Scott Paxson should both fend off fellow junior Steve Roach for starting positions, at least early in the year, though all three are solid options. At the ends, seniors Matthew Rice and Tamba Hali each had 51 tackles last year, and round out a tough veteran defensive line.
Though it's difficult to get recognition in a conference with the best linebackers in the country, the Nittany Lions are as good as any of them. Posluszny will be joined by Tim Shaw and Dan Connor in a retro-style linebacking corp that has excellent movement and an aggressive attack reminiscent of the Linebacker U days.
The secondary is just as good. Veteran Chris Harrell will return from a neck injury to improve a defense that ranked sixth in the nation last season. Zemaitis will play a key leadership role among the backs as a smothering corner, while Anwar Phillips at the other corner spot had four interceptions and broke up ten passes as a junior. Calvin Lowry has 26 career games under his belt after seeing time as a true freshman, and led the defensive backs with 50 tackles last year.
On special teams, Patrick Humes and Jason Kapinos return as placekicker and punter, respectively, but Humes will have to battle incoming freshman Kevin Kelly. Both veterans made the team as walk-ons, and Kelly has earned a scholarship, which is rare for Penn State to bestow upon a kicker. Williams and King will be expected to add speed and breakaway potential to the return game.
Despite spending 56 total years in Happy Valley, Paterno still has a great enthusiasm for coaching. "I think the fact that we can be at that level, at the top of the Big Ten, has kept me going," he said. "You can't throw anything at me that I haven't seen before."
"Coaching is not a mystery," he continued. "The biggest part of coaching is not the X's and O's, that's the easy part. When you have to be concerned with is the environment that the people you're coaching are in."
Throughout preseason, Penn State's environment has been nothing but a positive one. There is an air of confidence surrounding the team, which thinks that its conference foes are severely underestimating them.
The first three games will be played at Beaver Stadium against non-conference opponents South Florida, Cincinnati, and Central Michigan. The Blue and White then open their Big Ten schedule at Northwestern before hosting Minnesota and Ohio State. Down the stretch they'll play at Michigan, at Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin, and at Michigan State after a week 11 open date.
It has become a tradition that on the night prior to the start of opening day, Coach Paterno and the Penn State cheerleaders will welcome over 20,000 fans to Beaver Stadium for "Penn State Football Eve." The night culminates in fireworks that Nittany Lions fans hope will be a sign of the season to come.