Does Paterno have the answers?

(left), a potential All-America, needs to stay healthy for the Penn State defense to be at its best.DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
(left), a potential All-America, needs to stay healthy for the Penn State defense to be at its best.DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER (Linebacker Michael Mauti)

To be successful, Nits' coach must tackle difficult questions

Posted: July 28, 2011

BIG TEN Conference Media Days convene this morning in Chicago, bringing the promise and possible dread of another college football season.

So what to make of Penn State? Well, some of the preseason magazines are touting the Nittany Lions as Top 25 material. One, Phil Steele's 2011 College Football Preview, has coach Joe Paterno's crew tied for first (with Wisconsin) in the Big Ten's Leaders Division, with the bold prediction that a success in either one of two tough, regular-season-ending road games - at Ohio State and Wisconsin - could propel the Nits into the Big Ten title game.

Other forecasters see something more along the lines of last season's 7-6 finish, which was barely tolerated in Happy Valley and would be less so if repeated.

So what's the real deal for a team long on potential and somewhat short of proven commodities? Hard to say, but it should make for an interesting season in Paterno's 46th season as head man. The schedule is brutal. In addition to the Buckeyes and Badgers, there's home games against Alabama, Iowa and Big Ten newcomer Nebraska, all of which, on paper, have as much talent.

All of which begs several questions, the answers likely not to be furnished until the games are played and all those inevitable surprises, pleasant or otherwise, pop up like your morning toast.

Here are five things to look for, the first two of which will bear extremely close scrutiny from game to game, possibly even from quarter to quarter and play to play.

1. Is this the final roundup for Paterno, the winningest Football Bowl Subdivision coach of all time? It's the final year of his contract, but don't be so sure that Paterno's ostensible bosses - university president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley - will let the grand old man keep on keeping on should things take a messy turn. Joe is going to turn 85 in December, and even legendary figures are obliged to eventually take their leave.

Even a relatively fit octogenarian is subject to the aging process. Even if Paterno's health remains robust, and his inclination to stay on doesn't waver, there will be those who wonder how long this ongoing soap opera can continue. Bear Bryant didn't last forever, and neither did John Wooden.

Recognizing the reality of the situation is not the same as hoping for a change. But, come on, a career that can never be duplicated has much more past than future. Another record barely better (or worse) than .500 could serve as the tipping point for a retirement announcement not of Joe's choosing.

2. The quarterback two-step, with sophomore Rob Bolden and redshirt junior Matt McGloin, again will be an ongoing story line. Who gets the nod for the opening game on Sept. 3 against Indiana State? And what happens if the season-opening starter has a bad stretch, or is injured? Bolden got hurt, lost his job to McGloin and never got it back, a turn of events that so soured him that he considered transferring. Can it happen again?

Success in college football increasingly is tied to the quarterback play, and the Big Ten has a lot of returning veterans at the position capable of turning in laudatory numbers. Paterno, offensive coordinator Galen Hall and quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno had better figure out who their No. 1 guy is and stick with him, even if it leaves the losing contestant miffed. Oh, and don't forget that two highly recruited quarterbacks, Kevin Newsome and Paul Jones, are also on the roster and somewhat less than pleased that they aren't gravitating toward the top spot.

3. The offensive line, as was the case last year, is under construction. Oh, sure, the Lions yielded only 12 sacks in 2010, which is good. But the running game averaged just a tad under 143 yards per game, which is not so good. With All-America guard Stefen Wisniewski gone to the NFL's Oakland Raiders, it's hard to see how the overall unit can be improved.

4. The linebacking should be solid, maybe even more than that. Surprised? Don't be. Penn State is known as "Linebacker U" for a reason. Michael Mauti, if he stays healthy, is a potential All-America, and Gerald Hodges, Khairi Fortt and Nate Stupar are all proven playmakers. But Mauti and Hodges have battled through injuries, so don't take anything for granted just yet.

5. Paterno always talks about the importance of special-teams play, and for good reason. Every season, it seems, Penn State is aided by or hurt by big plays in the kicking game. This year should be no exception.

Dependable placekicker Collin Wagner nailed 20 of 25 field goal attempts a year ago, but he's gone and he leaves a void that might be difficult to fill. Chaz Powell needs to come up aces as the kickoff returner, and the same goes for Devon Smith - maybe the fastest Lion ever - who has yet to break off the succession of long gainers all that speed would suggest.

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