STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Penn State's off-season of horrors continued Friday when starting outside linebacker Sean Lee suffered a season-ending knee injury during a spring practice.

Lee, a senior all-American candidate, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while chasing quarterback Daryll Clark and had to be carted off the field. He was on crutches yesterday during a coaches clinic scrimmage at Beaver Stadium. In a statement released through team spokesman Jeff Nelson, Lee indicated he would try to assist the team with his presence, even if it's on the sideline.

"I have a responsibility to the team to help do everything I can this year in what might be a non-conventional way," he said. "I have to turn this into a positive. It's a bump in the road. I'm excited about the team . . . and the kind of season we can have."

The loss of Lee is a devastating blow to a team that returns 18 starters. Not only is the 6-foot-2, 234-pound Pittsburgh native one of the Nittany Lions' top performers, he's an outspoken leader.

"That's a huge loss," said former Lions linebacker Dan Connor. "He's got the heart of a lion. I know he'll be able to bounce back."

Lee will undergo surgery in the next two to four weeks and will need nine months to rehabilitate, according to team doctor Wayne Sebastianelli. Lee likely will earn a medical redshirt and could return for the 2009 season. There is the possibility he could forgo his final season of eligibility and declare for the NFL draft.

Lee dabbled with the idea of entering the draft after his superb junior season, when he notched 138 tackles, second only to Connor in the Big Ten Conference. He filed papers with the league's advisory committee and was told he could be picked somewhere around the third round.

But Lee said he wanted to return for his final season and a chance to be a captain.

"I wasn't going anywhere no matter what," he said two weeks ago. "I was going to be here."

Now his season is over, less than a week before Saturday's Blue-White game, which concludes the spring session. There are a number of contenders to replace Lee. Yesterday, redshirt sophomore Bani Gbadyu played Lee's spot, with Tyrell Sales and middle linebacker Josh Hull also on the first team. Sophomore Chris Colasanti has been in the middle with the second team, but is versatile enough to move to the outside.

Another option is the suspended Navorro Bowman. He was one of six players indefinitely suspended from the team this off-season for various infractions: Defensive tackles Chris Baker and Phil Taylor, tight end Andrew Quarless and defensive back Knowledge Timmons have sat out during the spring. Wide receiver Chris Bell was also suspended - until he was charged with assault Monday, accused of pulling a knife on teammate Devon Still in an argument. He was then kicked off the team.

The biggest off-season distraction has revolved around coach Joe Paterno. The 81-year-old Paterno is in the final year of his contract, but university president Graham Spanier released a statement Thursday saying Paterno's future will be assessed only after the season.

Practice notes.

The big spring question gained some clarity yesterday as Clark and Pat Devlin continued their battle for the starting quarterback spot. Paterno had said that he didn't expect to have a definitive No. 1 by the end of spring, but Clark ran mostly with the first team while Devlin took all his snaps with the second team. The race, however, is far from over. . . . Starting cornerback A.J. Wallace did not practice. The junior lost a few teeth when he was hit in the jaw. His status for the rest of the spring session is unknown.