Brennan: Every program would love to have these issues. Penn State will enter the 2006 season with what ought to be the nation's top-rated linebacker corps, led by Butkus Award winner Paul Posluszny, as well as veterans Dan Connor and Tim Shaw. If there is a potential problem, it will be whether this group can be as effective this season as it was in 2005 despite playing behind a rebuilt defensive line. But that, admittedly, is nitpicking.
Harrington: I see the biggest issue as balancing the veteran talent the unit has with getting the young talent as much game experience as possible to prepare for the future when Posluszny and Shaw graduate. Ron Vanderlinden has a special unit and, if played correctly, could have an amazing unit in years to come if he can get his younger athletes essential game experience at times this season.
Harrington: The main priority is setting the depth chart. The kickoff starters are a slam dunk with Posluszny, Shaw and Connor, but the staff loves to conduct experiments during the off-season. The sooner they find a permanent home for the players (particularly Connor, who may get some off-season reps in the middle spot) the better. This will provide a solid building block for a retooled secondary and defensive line to build from and give some great learning experience to the younger prospects like Jerome Hayes and Sean Lee.
Brennan: Another top priority is making sure Posluszny is back at full force in time for the preseason after sustaining ligament damage in his right knee in the Orange Bowl. All indications are that the senior is ahead of schedule in his rehab. But it would seem to make sense to have him skip most contact in the spring as a precautionary measure. He can work off any rust in the preseason.
Keep An Eye On
Brennan: Hayes is a hitting machine from Bayonne, N.J., who took a redshirt as a true freshman last season. Though not blessed with tremendous speed, he has a natural feel for the game that allows him to more than compensate. He may not receive a ton of playing time this season given the veterans atop the depth chart, but look for Hayes to emerge as a mainstay at linebacker in 2007.
Harrington: The secret's out on Sean Lee after his fill-in for Posluszny in the bowl. Although he sustained a knee sprain last off-season, which limited his play early on, the reports on Lee have been glowing since. As one observer said of him last year, "He is a natural football player. Physically, he has been adding size and strength all season. Fundamentally, he focuses on the details of his game. Mentally, he's intimidating." Lee is a prototypical 'backer — physical, aggressive and intelligent. It should be interesting to see how he further develops under the tutelage of Posluszny.
Behind The Scenes
Harrington: Vanderlinden has built the unit based on speed and strength as characterized by all three starters. What's more important is the leadership role the group will take. Posluszny is a proven leader. Connor has improved dramatically in this area as well, learning from his punishment last season. As one observer shared, He is more focused now on helping himself and the team — pushing guys in workouts. He's grown as a leader." The guy who may surprise folks, though, is Shaw. His name has been thrown around this winter as a possible candidate for team captain. He could easily be a captain, one observer said. He is a natural leader; he may not get the hype or coverage, but he is always, always, always pushing the guys around him to fight, push and battle. The players listen to and respect him.
Brennan: Redshirt sophomore Dontey Brown is terrific at stopping the run but his practice struggles against the passing game have kept him from getting past third-team on the depth chart. Though he is young, this is a critical year for Brown to round out his game and stamp himself as a key contributor for the future.
Setting The Record Straight
Brennan: Redshirt sophomore Spencer Ridenhour spent his first two years in the program playing linebacker. Look for the 6-0, 210-pounder to make the move to safety this spring. More on this when TYM looks at the secondary in our next installment.
Harrington: Although there is likely to be talk about shifting Connor to the middle, Shaw's experience and size advantage (235 pounds to Connor's 224 pounds) make him the player expected to man the middle post come fall.
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