If junior Paul Posluszny has anything to say about it — and as a third-year starter at outside linebacker, he has as much say as anyone — that shouldn't be a problem. Posluszny sees plenty of room for improvement.
We realize that we didn't really do anything special last year, he said. I mean, we were 4-7. Our record wasn't very good. As a defense, we're concerned with getting better. There are a lot of things that we can work on individually and as a group. So I don't think we're going to get caught up in what happened last year. We're working hard to improve.
If he and his defensive teammates meet that objective, Penn State may find it almost impossible to miss out on a bowl game for the fourth time in five years, regardless of whether the offense improves. After all, the defense nearly got the Nittany Lions into the postseason single-handedly a year ago.
Penn State gave up only 14 touchdowns, fewest in Division I-A. It surrendered only 15.3 points per game, least in the Big Ten. It didn't allow a single opponent to surpass 21 points in a game, and it finished in the top 10 nationally against both the pass and the run.
Posluszny was right in the middle of all that action. He was sixth in the conference with 104 tackles and was tied for the team lead with 12 tackles for loss. He was everything fans and coaches hoped he would be after a dazzling freshman season.
Now comes the hard part. Asked how he expects to improve on last season's performance, Posluszny recited a familiar checklist, noting that he needs to read his keys faster, get back into pass coverage more efficiently and improve his technique.
But what Posluszny really wants is to score. And he wants his fellow defensive players to score as well. Penn State's focus this spring is on stripping balls and luring quarterbacks into throwing interceptions. For the defense, those takeaways could mean the difference between respectability and greatness.
We need to do a lot better job than we did last year, Posluszny said. Last year we had some guys who made plays. But to be respected nationally, we have to do some special things. We need to come up with some big plays. None of us had a big interception that we returned for a touchdown or got a game-changing sack and forced a fumble and picked it up and scored. We never really did that. We were able to get 10 or 11 tackles per game, but to become the best, I think we have to do some special things and make plays that will change games.
The Lions amassed their share of turnovers last year, ranking third in the Big Ten with 24 takeaways. But they didn't take any of those turnovers back for touchdowns. It was the first time since 1984 that Penn State didn't score a touchdown on defense or special teams.
The team appears to have the linebackers it needs to change some games this coming season. Posluszny will merit All-Conference recognition -- he was a second-team choice last fall -- and may receive All-America consideration if the Lions continue to excel on defense. Dan Connor also appears to be award-worthy if his fine freshman season was any indication.
Posluszny said Connor was playing outside linebacker at the start of spring practice, with redshirt junior Tim Shaw inside. Shaw started seven games last season at inside linebacker. But by the second half of the season Connor's potential was undeniable, and the coaches reshuffled their depth chart with the true freshman on top.
With Derek Wake's graduation — he's one of only two defensive starters to depart — the Lions must fill a vacancy at one of the outside spots. But even if Connor plays outside this season, the linebacker corps won't require an overhaul.
The system is such that it's not tough to play inside or outside, Paterno said. I don't think it's a big item. We are fortunate that we have some athletes who are not just good athletes but also very bright kids who have very little problem adjusting to one side or the other.
The Lions are also developing depth. Posluszny has been impressed with backup Tyrell Sales. He said he expects the redshirt freshman to make an impact on special teams and eventually at linebacker. He worked really hard through the winter, Posluszny said. I think it should really pay off for him. I think you'll definitely see him on the field this fall.
King, he said, is really impressive. He's a great athlete, but more importantly, he has great football instincts. He's made plays already [in practice].
As for Williams, he can just flat-out fly. He's a tough kid to cover.
They both have a lot of potential, Posluszny added. I think they're going to do big things for us this fall. They're probably going to return kicks, return punts. They're definitely going to be on the field.
Those players weren't a part of last season's disappointment. But if they've spent any time talking with their new teammates, they're surely aware the team's 7-16 record over the past two seasons has created a sense of urgency.
Posluszny hasn't been a part of a winning season at Penn State. As a student of the program's tradition — he switched his jersey number from No. 39 to No. 31 to capture some of the magic of former greats Shane Conlan and Andre Collins — that's a bothersome distinction. The Aliquippa, Pa., native had plenty of time to reflect during Penn State's long off-season. Even with spring practice well underway, the team's recent struggles gnaw at him.
It's never really gone out of my mind, Posluszny said. But I think that's a good thing. It gives us more energy and drive to do well this spring and carry it over into the fall. We don't want to be home again for Christmas. We want to be in Florida or California playing in a bowl game. Sitting at home, it's just not the way Penn State football is supposed to be played.