The dream is vivid in his mind. "We begin with a win over
Southern Miss, and my knee starts getting back to normal," says
fullback Aaron Harris, tapping on a schedule with his right hand
as he sits in a conference room in Penn State's athletic
offices. "We knock off Bowling Green, then Pittsburgh. My knee's
feeling stronger. Then, against Ohio State in Columbus, my
knee's 100 percent and we upset the top-ranked team in the
country. We give Minnesota some payback the next week, and we're
on our way."
The vision doesn't end there. It goes on to include Big Ten and
national titles, capped by players carrying coach Joe Paterno
into the sunset on their shoulders. The dream doesn't show us,
however, who will play quarterback or tailback this season, or
how the Nittany Lions will replace six starters from a defense
that last season couldn't stop the run, a fatal flaw in a
between-the-tackles kind of conference. All of which leads to
the problem with dreams: Sometimes they don't come true.
"We have a lot of holes on our team," says the 71-year-old
Paterno, who is two wins shy of 300 career victories. "We may
eventually play ourselves into being a great team, but we won't
be one at the start."
If Penn State is to come close to greatness, it will need
Harris, a junior, to rebound from the torn anterior cruciate
ligament he suffered in his right knee last October against
Minnesota. Before his injury, Harris--who did not practice this
spring--was averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Paterno compares the
injury to the one Blair Thomas suffered in 1987 and believes it
will take Harris a full year to get back up to speed. "He's a
key for us," Paterno says. "When he went down, it changed our
Until Harris is completely healthy, he will rotate at tailback
with junior Cordell Mitchell and senior Chris Eberly, neither of
whom will remind anyone of Curtis Enis (3,256 yards rushing, 38
touchdowns over three seasons). For now, that leaves redshirt
sophomore Mike Cerimele as the fullback, a late replacement for
senior Anthony Cleary, who left the team in mid-August. At
quarterback, the candidates are junior Kevin Thompson, a
strong-armed, slow-footed, classic drop-back-style quarterback,
and sophomore Rashard Casey, a run-pass threat in the Nebraska
mold. So perplexed is Paterno by the dilemma that he hasn't
dismissed the possibility of rotating the two.
On defense, an inability to stop the run ultimately undermined
Penn State's season last year. The Nittany Lions ranked 81st in
the nation in run defense but should improve in that area this
year if for no other reason than junior defensive end Courtney
Brown's having recovered from a dislocated left thumb; he played
in a cast for the final nine games last season and still was
named a second-team All-Big Ten player. Another jewel on defense
is junior linebacker Brandon Short. Not only could Short become
Penn State's first consensus All-America on defense since
linebacker Shane Conlon in 1986, but he's also a leader on a
team that otherwise lacks leadership. This summer, for example,
it was Short who helped persuade about 30 players to show up at
the school track every Friday at 5 a.m. to run laps in the
predawn darkness. That's the kind of thing that can turn a
mediocre team into a magical one.
"It's easier to start the season with low expectations," says
Harris. "Last year we started Number 1, and everyone gunned for
us. Now it's our turn to surprise."
In August, everyone can dream.
COLOR PHOTO: TOMASSO DEROSA/SWSI Headhunter Brown has recovered from a dislocated thumb and should wreak havoc. [Courtney Brown being blocked in game]
1997 record: 9-3
(6-2, tied for 2nd in Big Ten)
Final ranking: No. 16 AP, No. 17 coaches' poll
1997 Averages OFFENSE DEFENSE
Scoring 32.7 21.2
Rushing Yards 208.6 181.9
Passing Yards 213.9 217.5
Total Yards 422.6 399.4
Titcus Pettigrew, a junior wideout who caught seven passes for
85 yards last season, played some strong safety in the spring
and could see action in the defensive backfield this fall....
After watching the sublime play of junior cornerback David
Macklin this spring, coach Joe Paterno said, "By the time he
leaves, he may be the best we've ever had at corner."
Schedule strength: 33rd of 112
Oct. 3 at Ohio State Penn State hasn't won in Columbus in two
tries since 1978. That streak won't be snapped this year.
Nov. 7 at Michigan The Nittany Lions look to avenge last year's
34-8 drubbing. A New Year's Day bowl could be at stake.
The Bottom Line
The roster is loaded with high school All-Americas, but
inexperience in the backfield makes this a third-place team in
the Big Ten.