Penn State Coach Joe Paterno often evaluates football recruits by watching them play basketball. "It's a big help," he says. "You can check out a kid's quickness, his balance, reactions, coordination, everything." Paterno was sold on Curt Warner, the Nittany Lions' All-America tailback, four years ago only after going to West Virginia and watching Warner play high school hoops, and Paterno dissuaded Flanker Kenny Jackson from pursuing a basketball career, even as Jackson received offers in that sport from UCLA and Syracuse. Paterno also picked Jackson's brother, Roger, a defensive back, right off the court at Middlesex County College in New Jersey, where Roger didn't even play football. Among other players who caught Paterno's eye while they wore shorts and sneakers are starting Tight End Mike McCloskey, 6'7" freshman Offensive Tackle Ed Boone and Quarterback Todd Blackledge. Basketball, it seems, has been very, very good to Paterno.
To Paterno's chagrin, however, the Nittany Lions have a case of the shorts this fall at—of all places—guard and center. Guards Sean Farrell and Mike Munchak both went in the first round of the NFL draft and Center Jim Romano in the second. "We've never had such an inexperienced line," says Paterno. With the departure of seven other starters—all of them pro draftees—Penn State will be pressed to equal last season's 10-2 record.
What the Nittany Lions do have is big-play talent. Warner, despite missing 2½ games with hamstring pulls, gained 1,044 yards rushing last season. If he picks up 577 more he will pass Lydell Mitchell as Penn State's alltime leading rusher. "Of all the backs I've had," says Paterno, "only maybe Lenny Moore could do what Curt can." And so outstanding is Warner's backup, Jon Williams, that the Nittany Lions may give up their traditional I formation and play Warner and Williams in the same backfield. "Jonathan is very compact, whereas Curt's kind of long and lean and maybe a step or two faster," says Running Back Coach Fran Ganter. "If either one gets you in the open field, you won't touch him."
Nonetheless, Warner says, "We'll be a passing team this year. For us to go, Todd will have to go." Blackledge, Warner's roommate, is tall (6'3") and perhaps a bit awkward, but he has what Paterno calls "that great big arm." He's also smart: a 3.81 student in speech communications who until last semester hadn't had any mark less than an A since his second term, freshman year, and who was elected to Phi Beta Kappa last spring. "He's my inspiration. His six straight 4.0 terms are something for me to shoot for," says Warner, himself a B student in speech communications. Warner and Blackledge are the closest of friends, having developed almost identical tastes and opinions though coming from disparate backgrounds.
Warner spent his whole life before college in tiny Wyoming, W. Va. (pop. 200), a coalmining town where he was the only black among 420 students during his senior year in high school. Blackledge, whose father coached football at Princeton, Kentucky, Cincinnati and Kent State, grew up in places like Cincinnati and Lexington, Ky. and spent most of his time around blacks. Often he was the only white kid on the courts in Lexington's inner-city projects. Blackledge was good enough at hoops to be invited to an all-star camp with Ralph Sampson, Sam Bowie and Dominique Wilkins. "I remember Sampson," he says. "I came up to his chest."
Blackledge will be working with some excellent receivers this fall in McCloskey, Gregg Garrity and Kenny Jackson, who's the fastest, most spectacular pass catcher Paterno has ever had. Jackson says he faces his toughest coverage while working out in the off-season with older brother Roger. Such training hasn't hurt Roger, either; he intercepted five passes last season and became the cornerstone of a secondary that's now the strength of the defense. His aggressive, wide-roving colleague, Safety Mark Robinson, is considered merely the Nittany Lions' best tackier since Jack Ham, the renowned Steelers linebacker. Penn State is a bit short on defensive linemen, but offsetting that is what Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky calls "an abundance of linebacker types." Penn State linebacker types. Don't worry too much about the defense.
Warner, who outgained 1981 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen 145 yards to 85 in the Nittany Lions' 26-10 Fiesta Bowl victory over USC, is going all out after his own Heisman. Last spring, to strengthen his legs "and learn how to run," he participated in track for the first time and did a 10.93 100 meters and a 22.24 200; this summer he worked harder than he ever had, running about five miles a day, lifting weights, catching passes from Blackledge and, of course, shooting some baskets. "This opportunity comes once in a lifetime," Warner says. "You can't just let it pass by." As for this season, he says, "We've got our work cut out for us. But that's one reason I came to Penn State. I love a challenge."
Paterno says that with Warner an unbeaten season is within reach.