SAN ANTONIO - Maybe if Jorvorskie Lane hailed from Pennsylvania instead of Texas, he would know better. Maybe if Lane played linebacker instead of tailback, he could understand the tradition and mystique that he will be going up against Saturday night in the Alamo Bowl.
But he doesn't, so perhaps the Texas A & M star can be excused for making a statement that would be considered blasphemous from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.
Asked for his thoughts about Dan Connor, Lane said he didn't think that going against the 2007 Chuck Bednarik Award winner and most recent All-America player to roll off Penn State's "Linebacker U." assembly line was any big deal.
"I studied him a little bit," said Lane, a 263-pounder who has scored a team-high 17 touchdowns. "He's no different from [Rashad] Bobino and Sergio [Kindle] from Texas, [Curtis] Lofton from Oklahoma. He's just another good ballplayer."
It remains to be seen whether Lane's thoughts on Connor change the first time that No. 40 fills a gap on third-and-short and introduces himself to the Aggies' pile-moving bruiser. But one thing is indisputable: Throughout much of America, maybe even in some areas of Texas, Penn State's reputation as college football's foremost birthing place of great linebackers is unsullied and unchallenged.
Ask Joe Paterno how and why that came to be and the longtime coach of the Nittany Lions professes not to know.
"I wish I was that smart," Paterno said of Penn State's linebacker-rich history. "But, yeah, we've had a lot of good linebackers."
That is like saying that Southern California has had had a lot of good tailbacks, that Nebraska has had a lot of good offensive linemen. Penn State is a brand, instantly recognizable to any reasonably knowledgable football fan for two reasons. One is Paterno, who has been at the school since 1950 and has been the Lions' head coach since 1966. The other is that "Linebacker U." thing, a legacy that has been crafted over decades with the assistance of an inordinately high number of players at that position who have earned All-America recognition.
For purposes of documentation, Paterno's first All-America linebacker was Dennis Onkotz, who was so honored in 1968 and '69. Since then the list has included the likes of Jack Ham (1970), Greg Buttle (1975), Shane Conlan (1985, '86), LaVar Arrington (1998, '99), Paul Posluszny (2005, '06) and Dan Connor (2007, '07).
Posluszny won the Bednarik Award as the nation's top linebacker in each of his last 2 seasons, and Connor's selection this year made it three in a row for Penn State. If he stays healthy, Sean Lee conceivably could make it four in a row next year.
That sort of recognition begs a question. Are Penn State's linebackers that much better than their competition? Or do they benefit from being, well, virtual rock stars in a system that has long been tailored to showcase their talents?
Posluszny, now a rookie linebacker with the Buffalo Bills, recalled his introduction to the moniker, a trend that figures to continue for a good, long while.
"When I was first being recruited, I admit I wasn't aware of the full scope of 'Linebacker U.,' " Posluszny said. "But when I went to Penn State with my parents to visit over the summer, we spoke to coach [Tom] Bradley and coach [Ron] Vanderlinden. We watched a 'Linebacker U.' highlight tape. It had all the greats - LaVar Arrington, Brandon Short, Shane Conlan, Jack Ham. There were so many of them, I know I'm probably forgetting somebody. That's when it hit me: I want to be a part of this, a part of something so very special."
They say success breeds more success. A highlight tape might nab a teenage recruit's interest, but so too does a chance to play alongside other capable linebackers and to learn from someone like Vanderlinden, who is widely considered to be one of the premier position coaches in the country. It's not a stretch to suggest that Posluszny came to Penn State because Tim Shaw was there, that Connor came because Posluszny was there, that Lee came because all of those guys were there.
For many of the same reasons, this year's linebacker-heavy recruiting class - true freshmen Chris Colasanti and Nathan Stupar were targeted by nearly every big-time program - gravitated to Penn State with the idea that they would evolve into the next Posluszny, the next Connor.
"Guys who think they're the best [high school] linebackers in the country want to measure themselves against the great players we have, the great ones who have played for us in the past," said Bradley, the defensive coordinator. "When we recruit a linebacker, we have a built-in advantage sometimes because those kids know our history at that position. Tradition is an enticement to them. They want to be a part of keeping that going.
"But it's also the style of defense that we play, the way we employ our linebackers. It's such a huge part of our scheme, and it has been for as long as I can remember."
Onkotz, who lives in State College, said the seeds for "Linebacker U." were planted early by Paterno.
"Penn State wasn't really known for its linebackers when I was playing there," Onkotz recalled. "But I will say the entire defensive system was geared for linebackers to do well.
"We played a 4-4, where I had the flexibility to roam. Our linemen tied up blockers, which allowed me to come in free and clean things up. The way our defense was set up, we probably had six linebackers on the field at any given time. Some of them might have been listed as defensive linemen or safeties, but they were really linebackers. And it's still pretty much that way. Penn State's emphasis is still on finding athletic, mobile guys to play linebacker."
Never has that been more evident than in 2006, when Paterno, Bradley and Vanderlinden made the bold move of moving the undersized Shaw, who had been the middle linebacker, to defensive end, opening the door for Posluszny to slide from the outside to the middle for Lee to become a starter.
"To get all four of us on the field at the same time, that was a terrific decision," Posluszny said. "The coaches found a way to make it work."
Shifting players around to find just the right slot for them is hardly unusual. All college teams do it, to an extent. But few coaches are as willing as Paterno to shuffle the deck.
Not many remember it now, but Ham arrived in Happy Valley as a guard. Connor had been a productive linebacker as well as a running back (career numbers of 4,556 rushing yards and 77 touchdowns) at Strath Haven High, and Lee was a running back (rushed for 1,240 yards and 21 TDs as a senior at Upper St. Clair High near Pittsburgh) and safety.
"Any time coach Paterno tells a player he wants to move him to linebacker, that's one of the highest compliments you can ever get at Penn State," Posluszny said. "Some of our best all-around athletes were - are - linebackers. That's just the way it is. I think it's pretty much always been that way.
"The coaching staff does a phenomenal job of identifying players who have the physical ability and football instincts to be Penn State linebackers. I don't know of anybody who played another position that complained or was disappointed when asked to play linebacker at Penn State."
And it's not only players who are drawn to "Linebacker U." like moths to a flame. Vanderlinden recalls Paterno turning on the charm when he was seeking a linebackers coach before the 2001 season. Vanderlinden had served as the head coach at Maryland from 1997 through 2000, but he had had a highly successful run as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Northwestern from 1992 to '96.
"I hired Ron because I needed a guy who could handle linebackers and he had had that kid [Pat Fitzgerald] who's the head coach at Northwestern now," Paterno said. "They beat us in 1995 and I remember how well-disciplined the Northwestern players were. They went hard on every play.
"I called [Vanderlinden] and said, 'How about you and your wife joining me for dinner?' "
Paterno does some of his best work, it seems, over a plate of pasta.
"I had three other offers, all of them to be a defensive coordinator," Vanderlinden said. "But when coach Paterno expressed interest, and he actually came down to Maryland to take my wife and I out to dinner, in typical fashion he talked about almost everything but football. I think he wanted to find out who we were, Lisa and I. And I have to admit, he charmed us.
"When we left the restaurant, my wife turned to me and said, 'You know, I think Penn State would be a good place for our family.' And it has been."
And will continue to be, as the current stars are replaced by the talented recruits. It's likely Lee will follow the lead of Posluszny and Connor and move from the outside to middle linebacker. No matter where he plays, though, Lee is sure to be highly productive.
That leaves vacancies on his flanks that could be filled by holdovers such as Jerome Hayes, Tyrell Sales and Navorro Bowman. Hayes is a hybrid defensive end-linebacker who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee against Wisconsin on Oct. 13 and hasn't played since. Sales started 11 games this season and will enter spring drills as an incumbent. Bowman seemingly would have the inside track, but will miss the Alamo Bowl because of disciplinary reasons and could find himself in Paterno's spacious doghouse, at least initially.
Holdovers Bani Gbadyu, Dontey Brown and Josh Hull all have more experience than Colasanti, the blue-chip freshman. But many believe Colasanti will be in the mix for a starting position before too long. Two other highly regarded freshmen - Stupar and Andrew Dailey - have bided their time while sitting out as redshirts. And then there are Brandon Beachum, Michael Mauti, Mike Yancich and Mike Zordich, all top who have orally committed to Penn State.
One trait expected of all of them is a selflessness required in Paterno's system. Posluszny said players with divalike tendencies are not apt to thrive at Penn State, provided they're recruited at all.
"Selfishness does not cut it at Penn State," he said. "You go there with the understanding that your function is to win and to always put the team first over individual recognition."
The funny thing is that the more team-oriented guys such as Posluszny and Connor blend in, the more they stand out. By far the biggest selling jerseys of the last several years did not bear the numbers of the so-called "skill" position players, but of linebacking standouts Posluszny (No. 31) and Connor (No. 40).
"That took a while getting used to, back in my sophomore and junior years when they first starting making those jerseys," Connor says. "To see so many people wearing those . . . that's been pretty amazing. It's an indescribable feeling. I never expected anything like that. It's great knowing people appreciate the work you put in."
The stars change. The system doesn't, not really. Connor said he understands he's like a relay runner, holding a baton that now will be passed along to Lee and from Lee to a Colasanti or a Stupar.
"Being a Penn State linebacker means taking responsibility for the guy alongside, the guys coming behind him," Connor said. "We're like brothers. Tim was like that with Paul, then I came in, then Sean. Everybody takes somebody else under their wing. That's just how it is. We compete against each other in practice, but we also pull for one another. That's the Penn State way." *