Six Penn State commits represented the Lions on the 2003 Pennsylvania Big 33 team, but most of the buzz surrounded the two consensus five-star recruits that had joined the fold. Larry Johnson had just completed his record-setting career in 2002, and Austin Scott was considered the heir apparent. Scott, who rewrote the Pennsylvania high school record books during his career at Parkland High was expected to step onto the Penn State Campus and into a starting role.
Five-star offensive tackle Joel Holler of McCaskey High had similar expectations. The big lineman had no problem proving himself to be the class of his league and his Penn State committment was expected to help to solve the Nittany Lions' offensive woes.
Penn State's Big 33 representatives also included four-star linebacker Paul Posluszny, three-star defensive lineman John Shaw, two-star receiver Brent Wise and unranked walk-on receiver Brendan Perretta. Fans and analysts were excited about Shaw and Posluszny, but neither generated the hype surrounding Scott and Holler. The Big 33 game would represent the first opportunity for all six players to showcase their talents against the higher level of competition provided at the Classic.
From the very first practice, a leader emerged. Posluszny became the voice and the face of the Pennsylvania squad, and Penn State fans embraced him as the savior of the Linebacker U. tradition. Posluszny's quiet, respectful off-field demeanor and personality endeared him to fans and to media alike, who welcomed the opportunity to obtain a well-spoken quote from this young man who was clearly the best player on the field.
At Penn State, Posluszny picked up where he left off in the Big 33, challenging immediately for playing time and earning a starting position by the end of his freshman seaso. Posluszny, who once considered joining the military, has been called by some the greatest linebacker in Penn State history — high praise indeed. He has also served as an inspiration to a new line of younger linebackers including Dan Connor, Sean Lee, and now, 2008 Big 33 Lions Mike Yancich and Michael Zordich. Posluszny nailed down a starting linebacker spot for the Buffalo Bills in his rookie year before an injury cut his season short. Regardless of his NFL future, Posluszny stands out as the star of Penn State's 2003 recruiting class. Five stars plus.
In a close call, I have to give the second spot in the 2003 Big 33 class to John Shaw. Shaw captured the imagination of Nittany Lion fans when a York newspaper photo that captured him working out by dragging free weights up a hill on his family farm in Spring Grove circulated widely on the Internet. While Shaw never quite became the lineman many hoped, his exploits in the weight room were legendary. Shaw completed his eligibility and saw most of his playing time on the offensive line finally settling in at right guard. He also inspired his brother Jim, a defensive tackle at Rice, to transfer to Penn State where he enjoyed two productive but injury plagued seasons.
John ended his career as a vocal leader, pushing his teammates to new heights in the weight room, and by working hard to improve. Shaw will not be remembered among the greatest linemen in Penn State history. But he will be remembered fondly, and deservedly so, for being willing to do whatever needed to be done to help out, whether playing defensive line early in his career or offensive line later. Four stars.
Few players have ever arrived at Penn State with the hype and excitement that surrounded Scott. Five-star Scott was anointed the next great Penn State running back, and the one who would smash Nittany Lion records just set by Johnson. Scott was the chosen one who would be the future hope of the Penn State program.
Things didn't work out quite as expected for Scott, and the signs began to surface at the Big 33 game. While he never admitted it, Scott appeared moody and detached, as he was never featured in a format which promotes the passing game. Scott had his opportunities, but against the talented Ohio defense he was hardly a difference-maker in the game.
Upon arrival at Penn State, Scott found himself in an unexpected battle with three-star recruit Tony Hunt. While the coaching staff professed outwardly that both backs would see plenty of game time, Hunt's hard-nosed running style soon relegated Scott to the second team. Living in Hunt's shadow did not make him invisible, however, and several minor off-field incidents relegated Scott to coach Joe Paterno's legendary doghouse — a place from which he never really emerged.
Scott finally got an opportunity to showcase his talent when Hunt went down to injury during the 2006 Orange Bowl. Making the most of the moment, Scott ran over Florida State for 110 yards and two touchdowns on his way to being named Player of the Game. Again, Scott had the Nittany Lion faithful looking forward to what he could do in his senior year. Again, fate stepped in.
Scott was injured in practice for the 2006 season, and with Hunt healthy, opted for a redshirt. Now Nittany Lion fans looked ahead to seeing Scott emerge as the leader he was always expected to be in the 2007 season. Scott was dismissed from the team, however, early in the 2007 schedule due to team rule violations and a much publicized sexual assault charge for which he was later acquitted. Scott's Penn State legacy will always be one of almost unlimited potential that went unrealized. Three stars.
Brendan Perretta was an enigma for the Nittany Lions. The undersized (5-foot-7) receiver from Altoona starred in the Big 33 Classic, but drew an almost universal frown from Penn State fans when he walked on the field. Reporting as a walk-on at a scant 164 pounds, Perretta's dedication and work ethic made him a favorite among the coaching staff and the other players, and although small, he always managed to find a way to get some playing time following a redshirt freshman season.
Perretta never topped 182 during his five-year career with Penn State, and he switched to cornerback for his senior year to help fill a gaping hole in the Nittany Lions' depth chart. Perretta will be remembered for his attention to detail, particularly in the accuracy of his route running and technique, where he made the most of his small size. Three stars.
Three-star receiver Brent Wise was expected to leave a mark on Penn State and to fill a desperate need for wideouts. However Wise never really impressed the coaches, and he was shifted to cornerback before his sophomore season. Wise never saw meaningful playing time for the Nittany Lions, and left the program quietly after three injury-plagued seasons. One star.
Holler was considered the great hope for Penn State's offensive line woes. Instead, the five-star prospect will be remembered as one of the greatest busts in Penn State recruiting history. Holler arrived at the Big 33 Classic in 2003 nursing a broken finger. A stomach flu kept Holler on the sideline more often than on the field as the week progressed, and Holler seemed to distance himself from teammates. Ineffective on the field at the Big 33, Holler reported to Penn State overweight, and was given specific weight goals by the Nittany Lion coaches which he never met.
Holler never saw playing time for Penn State and transferred after two seasons to the University of Delaware. Zero stars.
The 2003 Big 33 Classic represents the last time Penn State had as many as six prospects on the game roster. This year, the Nittany Lions have seven Big 33 representatives in Pete Massaro, David Soldner, Matt Stankiewitch, Brandon Ware, Mark Wedderburn, Mike Yancich and Michael Zordich. The next five years will determine what legacy they will each leave on Penn State.
Nittany Lion fans will get a chance for a preview on Saturday 7 p.m. when the 51st annual Big 33 Classic kicks off at Hersheypark Stadium.