During a mid-July workout quarterback Zack Mills, seven months
removed from his record-breaking freshman season, received some
impromptu advice from coach Joe Paterno. "We were laughing about
the attention I've been getting," says Mills, who became the
toast of Happy Valley by throwing for 1,669 yards, a freshman
record, and nine touchdowns. "Then Coach said something that
stuck with me: 'All that attention is like poison. It only kills
you if you swallow it.'"
Mills was lauded for invigorating a moribund offense after the
Nittany Lions had stumbled to an 0-4 start. Handed the reins late
in the fifth game, at Northwestern, Mills engineered a
game-winning drive and then helped Penn State win four of its
final six. "Mills is young, he's bright and he's got good
athletic ability, but he's got a ways to go," says Paterno. "He's
not Moses yet."
A lefthanded passer, Mills combines a 6'2", 215-pound frame with
4.6 speed and a rifle arm. He's comfortable running bootlegs or
keeping the ball on the option. "When guys first see him, they're
like, 'Oh, he's a natural white quarterback, he's going to drop
back and throw,'" says senior tailback Larry Johnson. "But he
deceives people when he gets out and runs."
Mills will have several skilled Johnsons to help him. In addition
to Larry, who rushed for 337 yards in 2001, wideouts Bryant
Johnson and Tony Johnson combined for 1,370 yards and six
touchdowns. Six starters return on defense, none more imposing
than tackles Anthony Adams (59 tackles) and Jimmy Kennedy (51).
Although Mills and his mates prevented a disastrous season, the
Lions' 5-6 record still meant that Paterno had consecutive losing
records for the first time in his 36-year head-coaching career.
Several players said that alleviating criticism of the
75-year-old Paterno is a motivating force. "I appreciate that,"
says Paterno, "but I've had great days, more than my share. I
want them to win for themselves." --D.G.H.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER LIONHEARTED Mills, who gave his team life after an 0-4 start, can beat foes through the air (1,669 yards) or on the ground (187).
2001 RECORD: 5-6 (4-4, T4 in Big Ten)
FINAL RANKING: not ranked
Rushing yards last season for the Nittany Lions, eclipsing the
previous team low of 1,689, set in 1963 in one fewer game.
An opposing coach's view
The Nittany Lions have the weapons to bounce back
"It's a tribute to Joe Paterno that the team didn't fall apart
last year.... Quarterback Zack Mills is a damn good football
player. It's a combination of his arm and his ability to make
plays.... Wideout Bryant Johnson can separate from the defensive
backs.... They've got four good defensive linemen back. Jimmy
Kennedy is a handful and will probably be a first-round draft
pick. He moves around very well. They slant him so he doesn't
get doubled, but I don't think you can block him one-on-one."
Aug. 31 CENTRAL FLORIDA
Sept. 14 NEBRASKA
21 LOUISIANA TECH
Oct. 5 at Wisconsin
12 at Michigan
26 at Ohio State
Nov. 2 ILLINOIS
16 at Indiana
23 MICHIGAN STATE