The trainers had nothing against basketball. They were looking out for Wedderburn's knee, which he blew out in a one-on-one drill in last year's first preseason practice. The degree of his recovery will go a long way toward determining how effective the Nittany Lions' defense will be in a season that begins Aug. 25 against Southern Cal in the Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium.
When Penn State, chosen by reporters who cover the Big Ten as the favorite for the conference title, begins practice tomorrow, there's little doubt that coach Joe Paterno will focus his thick lenses on Wedderburn more than on any other player. Paterno has said that Wedderburn will be an impact player the day he steps on the field, providing his knee is healthy. Meanwhile, caution is the word.
``We have to be careful with Wedderburn early,'' Paterno said. ``We don't think he's quite there yet, so we can't treat him like he's 100 percent.''
If Wedderburn gets there, look for something special. The former scholastic all-American from Upper Darby High School is a mountain of a young man with remarkable quickness and a taste for contact. He is a guy who bench-pressed 400 pounds at Upper Darby but was agile enough to average 20 points a game for the school's basketball team. The Jamaica-born Wedderburn didn't begin playing football until he was 15, three years after moving to the Philadelphia area from Montreal.
For Wedderburn, the wait to play at Penn State has seemed interminable. He arrived at the school two years ago but sat out the 1994 season because he was academically ineligible, having fallen short of the required score on the Scholastic Assessment Test. Then, last year, locked in a one-on-one duel with guard Marco Rivera, he quickly learned what an anterior cruciate ligament was. His ripped apart, and he was idled for a second straight year, left to imagine what it must be like to play before more than 96,000 people at Beaver Stadium. At the same time, he wondered if his ordeal was worth it.
``Yeah, I've wondered a few hundred times if it's all worth it,'' he said. ``I've spent two years imagining what it's like to play again, visualizing it all the time. But I think I'm ready. My knee feels strong, and the doctors say I'm ready, so I'll go by their word.''
If Wedderburn is healthy, he'll give the defensive line a huge boost - literally. He might be the biggest defensive lineman in Penn State history. He is desperately needed, because the loss of Brad Scioli, a junior from Upper Merion who blew out his knee in spring practice, has left a hole in the line. But Wedderburn will be eased into practice, because he needs to overcome the self-doubts that sometimes affect players coming off serious injuries.
``A buddy of mine back home who had this injury said the biggest thing is to get the fear out of your head,'' Wedderburn said.
Asked how long it would take him to recapture his feel for the game, Wedderburn smiled.
``I don't think it'll take long for me to hit somebody,'' he said. ``I'm sure I can still do that.''
* Senior Jason Collins, the strong safety who suffered a badly broken left leg early last season against Rutgers, may not play this season. Collins, from Cinnaminson High in South Jersey, said doctors have told him that it was one of the worst breaks they'd seen.
Paterno said the university has petitioned the NCAA to grant Collins a medical redshirt season. Collins will be a fifth-year senior - he was redshirted as a freshman - but the NCAA makes occasional exceptions for injured players seeking to come back for their sixth years.
Collins' loss last season was a major reason that opposing tight ends had so much success against Penn State.
NOTES. With only three returning starters, State's offense will be young. The defense has seven starters back, but appears thin because of injuries. ``Some years, you have a feel for what the team can do,'' Paterno said. ``I don't have any kind of feel for this team yet. It's inexperienced and immature, but there is potential.''