Now in his 46th season as head coach, the 84-year-old Paterno has addressed all the sore spots during preseason practice while continually preaching the need to be tougher.
Maybe the Lions will be tougher. Maybe the defense will be better, and the offensive line could turn out to be pretty good. But the quarterback situation is in the same quandary as a year ago - unsettled and unresolved.
Junior Matt McGloin, whose grip on incumbency loosened after he threw five interceptions in the Outback Bowl, and sophomore Rob Bolden have been 1 and 1-A since practice began. They have more game experience than they did at this stage last year, but neither has stepped forward to seize the job.
Paterno has said he won't make a decision until he has to. He said early on that he hadn't considered a two-quarterback system, but that would have to be an option as Saturday's opener against Indiana State gets closer.
"Eventually it may come to that," Paterno admitted at media day, "but until now I haven't thought about it."
Neither player likes the idea of a two-quarterback operation, feeling that the team needs one guy to be in charge in the huddle. But you have to figure if Paterno goes with one quarterback, the other isn't going to like that, either.
That leads to speculation over what Bolden would do if McGloin got the nod. After not calling a single play in the Outback Bowl, Bolden wanted to transfer, but Paterno would not grant him a release from his scholarship. He kept reporters guessing after the Blue-White Game on whether he would be around once fall practice started.
For now, he's in Happy Valley. Does he leave if he's not named No. 1?
"I'm not even thinking of it," Bolden said. "I'm thinking I'm going to be the starter, so that's it."
Uncertainty with the quarterbacks aside, Penn State begins 2011 with a terrific corps of wide receivers, including speedsters Derek Moye, Devon Smith, and Alex Kenney. Silas Redd, a sophomore with more spin moves than an Olympic figure skater, takes over at running back and is considered a good bet by no less an expert than Evan Royster to someday smash Royster's career rushing record.
The offensive line, a favorite target of Paterno's, returns three starters and boasts experience at the other two positions. If 6-foot-6, 266-pound Andrew Szczerba is healthy again after back miseries kept him out last year, he'll be the type of big, physical tight end Paterno loves to have on the field.
"We're fine, we're definitely going to be a lot better than last year," senior offensive tackle Quinn Barham said.
The defense appears to be better but will only be as good as sound health can take it. The Nittany Lions already have lost Marple Newtown end Pete Massaro, a holdover starter, to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. But ends Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore, both of whom sat out multiple games last season, are back from injuries.
"In my mind, there is no doubt that a lot of this has come back," said Crawford, a senior out of St. Augustine's in South Jersey. "I've got one goal now - playing hard and playing my best."
The linebackers could be the deepest area on the team. Michael Mauti has received more preseason national attention than any other Lion. Gerald Hodges (Paulsboro High) is a hard hitter who can run. Glenn Carson's strong performance in the middle persuaded coaches to move Mauti to the strong side, and leaves projected starter Khairi Fortt looking for playing time.
Led by cornerback D'Anton Lynn, the secondary is experienced, and the return of free safety Nick Sukay from a torn pectoral muscle will help.
The kicking game is shrouded in mystery. With sophomore Anthony Fera in Paterno's doghouse after an off-field transgression, true freshman Sam Ficken figures to be the kicker when the season starts.
Of course, all of the good and bad awaiting the Lions for 2011 is overlooked right now while Paterno decides on which quarterback will lead his team for the opener. Nittany Nation hopes it won't be a distraction.
Nittany Lions Outlook
Last year: 7-6 overall, 4-4 Big Ten, lost to Florida in Outback Bowl
Head coach: Joe Paterno (46th season, 401-135-3)
Key returnees: LB Michael Mauti, WR Derek Moye, DE Jack Crawford, RB Silas Redd, CB D'Anton Lynn, OT Quinn Barham
Keys to the season
Finding a quarterback: Quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno likes to point out that Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin have much more game experience than they did 12 months ago, when his father was similarly undecided about who would start the opener. But the coaches have to designate a No. 1, or find a way to make a two-quarterback system as agreeable as possible for both players.
Rebirth on defense: Injuries to players such as Mauti, Crawford, free safety Nick Sukay, and end Eric Latimore hurt the unit last season, but there didn't seem to be the sense of urgency that has been typical of Penn State defenses in the past. All four of the injured are back healthy, and the line, linebackers, and secondary all look ready to help the defense to a better season.
Who's kicking? Anthony Fera, the returning punter and the heir apparent to Collin Wagner on field goals, is in Paterno's doghouse after pleading guilty to two summary offenses. That leaves the Lions with true freshman kicker Sam Ficken and sophomore Alex Butterworth, who punted 12 times last season after Fera underwent an appendectomy. Should be some anxious moments here.
Outlook: Even with questions at quarterback, the Nittany Lions have just one ranked team (Alabama) appearing on their schedule in the first nine. Unless they slip and fall at Northwestern, the Nittany Lions should start 8-1 before facing a brutal closing stretch during which they host Nebraska and travel to Ohio State and Wisconsin. Some don't see a win here. We see one, and that would leave them at 9-3 going into a bowl.
- Joe Juliano
Look for Penn State video coverage on game days and during game weeks.
Updates, news, analysis - everything Nittany Lions throughout the season.
Mike Mauti is the top linebacker at Linebacker U. And he's fine with that.
Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or firstname.lastname@example.org