Lions Feeling Good This Summer

Most news out of the Lift For Life Challenge seemed to be good, including an update on the health of head coach Joe Paterno.

July is the point in the college football calendar that calls to mind that scene in the movie “Animal House” in which Kevin Bacon's character, clad in his ROTC uniform, stands on a street corner in the mythical town of Faber and, with the citizenry whipped into a panic by those mischievous Deltas, yells the following: “REMAIN CALM! ALL IS WELL!”

So it is with any group of football-playing student-athletes you care to name, including those at Penn State. Any unpleasantness that might have arisen last season has been put to rest in the intervening months. Injuries have healed. Improvements have been made. Positional battles, while still weeks away from resolution, will surely work themselves out in the best possible way.

Only in the months to come will we find out whether we, uh, messed up by trusting them.

By far the most pertinent bit of news to emerge from Friday's Lift for Life in Holuba Hall is that head coach Joe Paterno is healthy again, after missing a handful of out-of-town appearances with what has been variously described as an intestinal bug or an overreaction to an antibiotic prescribed for some dental work.

“He's going to be fine,” Jay Paterno, the team's quarterbacks coach, said of his 83-year-old father. “It won't be a problem.”

The elder Paterno was not scheduled to appear at Friday's event, a fundraiser for the Kidney Cancer Association, and according to his son was taking his annual vacation at the Jersey Shore.

Jay Paterno said he was “not that concerned” about his dad's health issue, which among other things caused him to miss three meet-and-greets with fans -- in Pittsburgh and Hershey in May, and in Philadelphia last month.

The younger Paterno recalled visiting his dad at his home at some point in the spring and finding out that he was not feeling well. That led, Jay said, to this exchange:

Jay: “What did the doc tell you?”

Joe: “Doc? What do I need a doctor for?”

Jay: “To go get medication and feel better.”

Joe: “I don't need that stuff.”

But in time the elder Paterno did consult a physician.

“Let's just say the doctor kind of showed up,” Jay said with a laugh. “I didn't call anybody. … I'm not at liberty to speak about that. My mom, I guess, finally got him to break down (by saying), 'Please talk to a doctor.' ”

And before too long, he was on the road to recovery.

“Through all of it he was meeting with us as a staff and (attending) recruiting meetings, and meeting with the team,” Jay said. “He's tough. He's ornery. He may get sick, but it never sticks around for too long.”

Evan Royster did choose to stick around. There had been some speculation that the senior tailback would enter the NFL Draft after last season, during which he ran for 1,169 yards, the second straight year he has gained over 1,000. But ultimately he chose to stay, in part to prove to pro scouts that he can carry a heavier load. (And it seems certain he will have to, given the Lions' uncertainty at quarterback.)

“I'd love to (do that),” he said. “I feel like I can. That's one reason I put the weight on.”

The 6-foot-1 Royster played at 214 pounds last year, and hopes to be somewhere between 218 and 220 this fall. Added weight, he said, “helps you deliver the blow more than take it.”

But on Friday he checked in at 226, after spending the early part of the summer at his home in Virginia to attend to “family obligations,” as he put it. While he worked out there, he said it's “completely different” than doing so at PSU.

“You don't have somebody to push you as hard as these guys push you,” he said, referring to the conditioning coaches.

Royster struggled during Friday's workout, notably the field test, which requires participants to work in tandem while lugging a pair of 100-pound weights some 200 yards, then push a weighted sled the same distance. At one point while pushing the sled, Royster, who was paired with wide receiver Devon Smith, fell to the turf and remained there for several minutes, exhausted.

“You can't train hard enough to be able to do this,” Royster said. “It's something that always gets you. … It's the toughest workout we do all year.”

Assuming Royster is back in shape by the fall, he stands to overtake Curt Warner for the school's all-time rushing record. With 2,918 yards to date, Royster is just 480 behind Warner, who ran for 3,398 from 1979-82.

The question remains as to who among Kevin Newsome, Matt McGloin, Paul Jones and Robert Bolden might emerge as the quarterback. It should come as no surprise that everyone believes that all the candidates can do the job, that it will not disrupt team chemistry in the least to await a winner of this derby, etc.

And Jay Paterno said all of them have the athletic ability the position demands in this day and age, when QBs must deal with elaborate blitz packages and speedy edge rushers. Newsome and Bolden were high school hurdlers, McGloin a pitcher capable of reaching 90 mph on the radar gun.

“At least that's what he tells me,” Jay Paterno said.

And Jones, a freshman lefty, excelled at basketball.

“Good change of direction,” the younger Paterno said. “Great awareness.”

(This should call to mind Zack Mills, another lefty who starred in hoops in high school. And who, for all his struggles at PSU, threw for more yards than anyone else in school history.)

Newsome was not on hand Friday, and as a recently arrived rookie, Bolden did not participate. Jones participated but, as a true freshman, was not allowed to talk to the media. McGloin, a redshirt sophomore, did take part in the event and did talk to the press. And he did not hesitate to state his case.

“I control the game very well, I think,” he said. “The team rallies around me because of this.”

He brings something of an underdog's mentality to the fray, having mostly attracted the recruiting interest of smaller Division I schools (like Lehigh and Colgate) coming out of high school.

That, he said, “makes me work harder. I use it as a motivator.”

The Lions must also shore up an offensive line that performed inconsistently last year. And at present, said Quinn Barham, the likely starter at left tackle, “Nothing's in cement. We're all just working like we're going to be starters.”

Beyond that, they must replace linebackers Josh Hull, Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman. Mike Mauti is expected to be a prominent part of the mix, after missing last season with a knee injury.

While he was not in action Friday, Bani Gbadyu -- another likely starter, after seeing extensive service last season -- said Mauti has looked so good in workouts to date, it's “like he never left.”

Gbadyu, for his part, now carries 242 pounds, some 13 more than in 2009. And, he said, “I'm still fast, still agile, still able to make plays like I've always done.”

“Everybody's evolving,” Gbadyu said of the 'backers, “in their own special way.”

Everyone is hoping for similar improvement from Devon Still, the heir apparent to Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Jared Odrick at defensive tackle.

“Jared set the yardstick,” Still said. “Hopefully I'm able to move that yardstick.”

Knee and ankle injuries cost Still nearly two full seasons, but he recorded 19 tackles and two sacks off the bench last year. And now his confidence appears to be picking up.

“I feel me and Jared are a lot similar,” he said. “We won't let anybody block us. I don't see any difference between us.”

Not in July, anyway. In July, hope springs eternal.

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