Paterno Reviews Team's Progress

With the kickoff of the 2005 season just eight days away, the Penn State football team opened the final 15 minutes of practice Friday to the media. Afterward Coach Joe Paterno and several players spoke with members of the press about the final days of preseason practice and the season that lies ahead.

Paterno did not offer any new information on the degree of the punishment doled out to sophomore linebacker Dan Connor for his alleged role in a series of prank phone calls, saying, "I haven't decided anything."

He noted that "five or six" players have potential to see time at the position vacated by Connor, spotlighting redshirt freshman Tyrell Sales and Air Force Academy transfer Joe Cianciolo.

"Sales is a good football player," Paterno said. "He's a good, tough kid. Sales has a little bulk, he'll probably play 235-240 and he's a tough kid. His best spot is probably inside."

With Sales in the middle, Tim Shaw would move to outside linebacker giving the Lions "two very fine athletes" outside in Shaw and Paul Posluszny, Paterno said.

The Lions also needed to turn to youth to fill the third defensive end spot vacated by Lavon Chisley, who will miss his final season due to academic ineligibility. Paterno noted that redshirt freshmen Josh Gaines and Mike Lucian stepped up during the preseason, saying that Lucian, "really surprised me."

Senior defensive end Tamba Hali said losing Chisley in the DE rotation was a tough loss, but that Gaines has shown tremendous ability.

"It's a huge loss," Hali said. "We were relying on Lavon for that three-man rotation. Three defensive ends gives you pressure. Josh has all the ability to play right now. He's done everything Coach [Larry] Johnson has asked. The only thing that will be a problem will be him letting himself go to play all out. When I was young I'd start saving myself for the next play. Coach says you gotta take your body beyond that limit where you think you can't do it but you do and it becomes routine. You keep taking off hard and hitting this guy in front of you."

Of course the most pressing concerns for the Nittany Lions this preseason were on the other side of the ball, where Penn State will look to breathe life into what was a stagnant offense in 2004. Paterno offered cautious optimism regarding the bevy of young receivers who will need to step up, even more so now given the loss of sophomore Mark Rubin, the team's most experienced receiver, to injury.

"I think the luxury we have this year is we're a little more deep at receiver. We have some more talent at the 2, 3s and 4s," said quarterback Michael Robinson. "Rubin going down hurt us but it provides an opportunity for someone else to step up."

He added that in addition to lauded freshman Derrick Williams, other freshmen receivers have looked good as well. Asked about James McDonald, Jordan Norwood and Lydell Sergeant, Robinson said, " Those guys are gonna be big. I'm not sure right now what they are going to do with McDonald or Norwood, but I think Lydell's gonna see some time. I think those guys can step in and play at anytime."

Paterno said he is planning to keep Sergeant on offense after several cornerbacks, singling out Tony Davis, looked good in the preseason. He said if needed Sergeant could play cornerback.

During practices, Robinson said the offense worked in three- and four- wide receiver sets "pretty much every play."

Asked if he had any concerns about the young receivers getting off the line against big, physical Big Ten corners, Robinson said, "Who's bigger and more physical than AZ (Alan Zemaitis)? Those guys they've definitely gone against him everyday and he's beat them up. At first they couldn't get off the line and now they getting off the line and making plays."

Both Paterno and Robinson said that at running back, Austin Scott has shown renewed focus this preseason.

"I wouldn't say anyone's moved ahead of [Tony Hunt], but the other two kids, Austin Scott and [Rodney] Kinlaw have had good preseasons," Paterno said. "Austin, every once in a while, you have to prod him a little. He doesn't realize how good he is."

During the waning moments of the scrimmage that wrapped up Friday's practice, Scott had a moment, modest as it was, to shine. After Hunt took a smooth option pitch from Robinson in for a touchdown (thanks in large part to a fine block from fullback Brandon Snow), the coaches kept the offense deep in the red zone for multiple plays. On the first of three carries for Scott, he was brought down at the 1. But on his next two carries showed a strong burst of speed to the hole and scored on both.

"The first one he could have scored and went down on the 1, and then the next two he went in there like a real football player," Paterno said.

Another unit which struggled last year, the offensive line has made progress this preseason. "They're playing against a couple really good guys," Paterno said. "If you put Alford in there and a couple kids that are pretty good players they struggle a little bit. Overall they made progress. We're not home free yet. We're not a great football team yet, we don't have a great offensive line yet."

Hali, meanwhile, singled out John Shaw as the offensive lineman he has been most impressed with during practice.

"John Shaw is a real strong guy," Hali said. "He comes off the ball real hard. I told him, 'You're going to do really well this year.' He really comes and hits the guy, not just trying to put his hands on him. If he does that every down, after a while somebody's gonna start folding."

Asked which player was the most pleasant surprise to him this summer, Paterno demurred initially, but then praised tight end Isaac Smolko.

"If I had to say one kid that's come and been all business, it's Isaac Smolko. He's worked hard, kept his mouth shut. He's catching the ball well and is running better. That's going to help us." On special teams, Paterno said he has been pleased with freshman kickers Kevin Kelly and Matt Waldron, though neither has moved in front of the other. Williams, Sergeant, Justin King (who is expected to play both offense and defense) and Anthony Scirrotto have worked as kick returners, and Paterno said he's also considered Deon Butler, who hasn't gotten as much work there because he's been "bumped up a little bit," according to Paterno.

Notes: The team concluded two-a-days on Thursday and will have Saturday and Sunday off before beginning game week practice for South Florida on Monday. Paterno said he wanted to use Friday's scrimmage to help determine which freshmen might be in the mix for playing time, particularly at linebacker

*Freshman linebacker Sean Lee is expected to be back from a knee injury next week. Paterno called Lee and fellow frosh 'backer Jerome Hayes, "good players."

*Paul Cianciolo is holding down the No. 3 QB spot. Paterno added that freshman Kevin Suhey, "is gonna be good," but that he is reluctant to get Suhey too involved because he can redshirt.

*Robinson said he and his fellow captains Zemaitis and Posluszny used some recent advice from a Penn State great when talking to teammates about keeping in line off the field: "We told the guys, 'We can't be doing stupid things anymore. You have to answer to us.' I talked to (former Nittany Lion quarterback) John Shaffer the other day and he said 'Man, when we were here, we laid down the law. Nobody messed with us.' We had to put a little fear into some of the young guys. But they understand what we want to do and that we want to have a big year."

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