Penn State's equivalent of Groundhog Day typically takes place in early-to- mid April.
If Joe Paterno feels good about his team, he tells the press and, in turn, the public, that it has a lot of work to do. If he doesn’t feel good about his team, he highlights all the positives he can find.
Just as Punxsutawney Phil almost always sees his shadow, Paterno’s spring assessments of his team have been blunt during the past few years. And why
not? The Nittany Lions have won 51 games since 2005.
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This week’s remarks, however — “We’re not a very good football team right now.” — might actually mean that, well, Penn State isn’t very good football team right now. Confusing, I know.
Further reading between the lines coupled with a quick glance at the current roster leads one to assume that Paterno isn’t so much concerned with a lack of talent or a lack of depth — the bugaboos that led to the four losing seasons that kicked off the last decade — but a lack of seasoning, which is important for any major college football team but crucial for those led by the game’s most experienced coach.
Paterno is so often referred to as an old-school coach not just because of his overall football philosophy — defense, kicking game and ball control favored over gaudy passing attacks or gimmick plays — but also because he demands that his players respect the game (and their coaches and their teammates) by playing it the right way.
You’re a talented freshman? Great. Get in line behind the walk-on senior who has killed himself in practice for four seasons. You just ran for a 50-yard touchdown? Nice job. Wait for your blockers next time.
Paterno says he is against the recent wave of players arriving on campus before taking their girlfriends to prom because “you’re only young once,” but also, undoubtedly, because it is a trend that runs counter to his long-held credo that football players are created over time.
Paterno values consistency, anticipation and sound technique — qualities typically found more often in veterans.
He has little tolerance for freelancing, showboating or players who go full-tilt for three plays then take the next two off — qualities typically found more often in underclassmen.
And this spring, the coach and his assistants are working with a lot of underclassmen. Even if you believe that Doug Klopacz will be the starting center, Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu starting linebackers and Brett Brackett a starting wide receiver when the Nittany Lions open the season against Youngstown State on Sept. 4, that would give Penn State a grand total of 10 senior starters, including kicker Collin Wagner. It’s a lot more likely that defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu will be the lone senior starter on defense and that linemen Stefen Wisniewski and Lou Eliades, receiver Graham Zug and tailback Evan Royster the only senior starters on offense.
So yeah, the Nittany Lions are young. And if you tire of hearing that from Paterno almost every spring, remember that everyone (perhaps even 60-something assistants Galen Hall and Dick Anderson) can seem young to the 83-year-old.
The stud freshman class, about a third of which is here already? They must look like babies to Paterno, who also spoke this week about the dangers of throwing freshmen into hostile environments like, say, Tuscaloosa.
“Basically, you better get the guys who have been in some tough football games ready to play,” he said.
Which brings us to what might be the root of Pater-no’s concern — there aren’t a lot of Nittany Lions on this team who have played in tough games. Ogbu, Gbadyu, Royster and Wisniewski are the only players who have started a game in two different seasons, and the projected two-deep on offense and defense is littered with redshirt freshmen and redshirt sophomores.
The good news is that many of them are talented, and could be key factors not only in what could be very strong 2011 and 2012 campaigns but also in a number of games this season.
The games in November, though, not September.
The young studs are going to need time, not only to refine their skills and learn the nuances of the game, but to prove to Paterno that they can perform not only as well or better than the upperclassmen ahead of them, but they can perform just as consistently.
And there are no upperclassmen at quarterback to turn to if sophomores-to-be Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin falter.
So yes, it’s likely that Paterno does feel good about what will be his 45th team after all. But it’s hard to blame him for feeling more than a little nervous about what it might look like before it gets a little seasoning.
Jeff Rice covers Penn State football for the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4609 or firstname.lastname@example.org.