STATE COLLEGE - The earnest, young reporter asked Penn State's 82-year-old coaching icon, Joe Paterno, what "excited" him about the team he will lead onto the field at Beaver Stadium on Sept. 5 for the season opener against Akron.
"What excites me? Nothing excites me yet," Paterno replied. "I'll be honest with you: We're lousy. I have nothing to be excited about right now.
"We have too many things we got to get accomplished. We've got a lot of work ahead of us to be a good football team. I'm excited to be alive, that's all."
But what about that No. 8 preseason rating in the USA Today coaches' poll?
"What does it mean? Does it guarantee us anything?" Paterno continued. "I don't pay attention to any of that stuff. It's good for the fans, but I really don't pay attention to it."
Paterno, who enters his 44th season as the Nittany Lions' field leader with the record for victories in the Football Bowl Subdivision, at 383-127-3, is a candid sort who has never been big on touting something that isn't there. He realizes that Penn State probably is ranked as high as it is because of last season's 11-2 run to a Big Ten Conference co-championship and appearance in the Rose Bowl, and because it probably remains the class of the league, along with Ohio State, despite heavy personnel losses on the offensive line, at wide receiver and in the defensive backfield. Oh, and there's also a lack of experience behind standout quarterback Daryll Clark; backups Kevin Newsome, a true freshman, and redshirt freshman Matt McGloin have never taken a college snap.
One key injury, or the failure of some new starters to develop quickly, could have the Lions unraveling like a spool of yarn. Then again, if everything falls just right . . .
"I don't know exactly what we're going to do until I find out what kind of team I got," Paterno said. "And I won't know that until 2 weeks from now."
With only 3 days of workouts completed, Paterno and the rest of his staff can only guess how some of the pieces of the puzzle will fit. And if you think he can be blunt with the media, imagine how it is for some players who have yet to gain JoePa's approval.
Before yesterday's indoor practice in Holuba Hall, Paterno hopped on one of the latest additions to his infamous doghouse, redshirt defensive tackle Brandon Ware, as he again arrived late.
"I'm tired of you being the last one at practice!" Paterno said as Ware, who is listed as 6-3 and 341 pounds, lumbered in. Fortunately for Ware, senior tight end Mickey Shuler arrived a half-minute or so after Ware.
"Brandon Ware is 20 pounds away from being even close to becoming a football player," Paterno had said earlier. "He's just too heavy. Doesn't have any stamina. He could be really good, but he's way overweight."
One thing about being in the Paterno doghouse: The ill-conditioned tend to shape up and the undermotivated are generally disposed to get their act together. To not do so is to remain on the wrong side of a legend who seems determined to demonstrate he is still as much in charge as he ever has been.
Suntanned and seemingly more fit than he's been in several years after a 2-week vacation in Avalon, N.J., where his 17 grandchildren visited in shifts, Paterno said he'll be on the field for every practice and every game this season.
"I didn't miss a practice in the spring. Didn't use a motor cart," Paterno said. "The only difference is that we're doing a lot of teaching, so we're on the practice field longer. We may be out there 2 1/2 hours. Ordinarily, once we get closer to a game, I don't like to be on the field longer than 2 hours. When I come off that practice field, I'm tired. My legs are tired. I didn't do as much walking as I should have this summer. But I'm fine."
Senior cornerback A.J. Wallace, projected to be a starter, likely will be held out for the first two games for cutting too many classes . . . Now that record-setting Kevin Kelly has moved on, the placekicking duties should fall to redshirt junior Collin Wagner or true freshman Anthony Fera. Wagner, who scored six points on one field goal and three extra points in 2008, is more consistent and appears to have the inside track; Fera has the big leg, but "he's all over the place right now," Joe Paterno said . . . Senior Dennis Landolt, the starter in all 26 games the last two seasons at right tackle, has been shifted to left tackle, the better to protect quarterback Daryll Clark's blind side. Last year's backup left tackle, DeOn'tae Pannell, moves to right tackle . . . Derrick Williams scored two touchdowns on kickoff returns and one on a punt return last season. No fewer than nine players are auditioning for the role of primary punt and kick returner, but none figures to match Williams' threat to take it to the house at any time . . . Offensive lineman J.B. Walton left Penn State because of a learning disability Paterno thinks the university was not equipped to deal with. *