A number of Nittany Lion players, among them quarterback Anthony Morelli and receiver Derrick Williams, thought in the aftermath of their 20-10 victory Monday against Tennessee in the Outback Bowl that that's exactly how they should be regarded. Their coach, however, was less effusive when he took up the matter Tuesday at his customary morning-after news conference.
Thinking and talking, that's fine, Joe Paterno said from the Hyatt Regency Tampa. But there's a lot of work ahead of us. We've got to get some leadership and do some other things. We should be thinking about being pretty good, but when you start talking about being the national champ, you had better make up your mind, because you have a lot of work ahead of you. It's one thing to be up there. It's another thing to be the best.
Paterno said he thought the Lions have good young players who haven't had an opportunity to do much. He said he felt the Lions have the capacity to fill some of the holes in their lineup and added that several of their key players are maturing into playmakers. He was particularly impressed with Morelli's performance against Tennessee, contending that the senior-to-be is ready to be a big-time quarterback.
The coach said he was hopeful the Lions would have strong leadership in 2007. He cited linebacker Dan Connor as a likely standout, assuming the three-year starter skips the NFL Draft and returns for his final season. Paterno added that safety Anthony Scirrotto has come to the front and complimented cornerback Justin King for the job he did containing Tennessee's Robert Meachem. The All-America receiver had only four catches for 33 yards against Penn State.
But the Lions go into the off-season with several key positions in flux. Of particular concern is the tailback spot, where Tony Hunt is graduating after saying goodbye to Penn State with a 158-yard game against Tennessee.
Hunt's likely replacements are all unproven. Austin Scott has one more season in which to get his star-crossed career moving forward. He redshirted this past fall and was sent home from Outback Bowl practice because of what Paterno called a family matter. Rodney Kinlaw has played sparingly in his first three injury-plagued seasons, and Evan Royster and Brent Carter will be redshirt freshmen in 2007.
Nevertheless, Paterno said he felt the Lions could be in good shape at tailback next fall. He was particularly impressed with Scott's attitude.
I was really pleased with Austin, he said. When he decided to redshirt he went over to the foreign team and did a great job for our defense, simulating the running backs we were going to play.
Paterno was asked whether he saw any parallels between his 1993 team and the 2006 team. In '93, the Lions lost to Ohio State and Michigan during the regular season but rebounded with a 31-13 victory over Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl, setting the stage for a 12-0 finish and Big Ten championship the following season. Could his current team be on a similar trajectory?
I haven't really thought about that, Paterno said. For me to start making comparisons, I don't know. We're losing Hunt. In '93 we had Ki-Jana [Carter], Bobby Engram, Kerry Collins. They were all coming back in '94. It's a little different cast of characters [this year].
In other news
Paterno said coaches are not allowed to go on the road recruiting until Jan. 15. Though he is still recovering from a broken left leg, he intends to travel to see recruits later this month. Most of our recruiting has been done as far as commitments. There are three or four kids out there and we're pushing hard [because they] can make a big difference in what we need. I'm gonna talk to them and see when is the best time for me to come down and see them. The first chance I get to go down I'll go down and see them.
Paterno said he expected his coaching staff to remain intact during the off-season. But, he added, You never know.
Paterno was distressed by Minnesota's decision to fire Glen Mason following the Gophers' collapse in a 44-41 loss to Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl. I think Glen's done a heck of a job for that place, he said. But it's a crazy world for coaches. My wife said to me this morning, 'They're going to give Nick Saban $40 million to go to Alabama.' Nick's a good coach, but that seems to me like it's a lot of money.
The biggest disappointment of Penn State's season was its 17-10 loss to Michigan, Paterno said. I thought we were going to beat Michigan, but they played a great football game against us. We played tough, but the day we played Michigan, I thought they could beat any team in the country. They were that good on that day.