Joe Paterno never has been reticent when offering his opinion, particularly about anything concerning the Penn State football program. It was no different yesterday in a conference call with Big Ten Conference coaches, during which the 83-year-old legend weighed in on a variety of subjects.

Basically, JoePa thinks college football increasingly is about matters that are too soon and too few.

Take the trend toward early enrollees. The Nittany Lions have seven true freshmen who arrived in January participating in spring drills that end April 24 with the annual Blue-White game. If the nostalgic Paterno had his way, all seven of the newest Nittany Lions would be back at their respective high schools, enjoying the remainder of a time in their lives they might come to regret shortening.

Defending national champion Alabama, which hosts Penn State on Sept. 11, has 11 such freshmen getting a head start on the summer arrivals. Michigan has seven.

"Every once in a while you get a kid that comes in January that is just that good, but in this league and with the schedule we play, it would be a mistake to put these kids - any of them - in a position where they've got to do a job that may be too tough for them," said Paterno, whose reluctance to extensively play freshmen before they're ready is well-documented.

"I've always believed you bring the young guys along, try to encourage them, look at what potential they have, whether you've got them in the right spots . . . the whole bit. But, basically, you'd better get the guys who have been in some tough football games ready to play.

"I think [early enrollment is] a lousy trend. I think kids ought to finish up the year in high school. You're only young once. I'm not happy we're doing it. But you get pressure all the time because there are kids you're recruiting and other people are talking to them about starting in January. I think the best thing for a kid is to go to the prom, have memories of what high school is all about, start college with the rest of the kids entering college and go from there. But I'm a voice in the wilderness."

At least once Paterno's unmistakable voice was heard and heeded by the powers that be. Years ago, he lobbied long and hard to have some form of television replay introduced that would eliminate, or at least reduce, the incidence of blown calls by officials. College football has replay now, although Paterno's other personal crusade - the institution of a playoff format - has yet to gain traction with college presidents and athletic directors who continue to pledge allegiance to the bowl system.

Those same college presidents and athletic directors, however, appear to be committed to increasing certain conferences' membership, which, of course, would increase television revenue. Paterno sees what's ahead and professes to be as powerless to stop it as he is at halting the influx of January freshmen.

"I think expansion is coming," he said of the future of the Big Ten, which, of course, welcomed Penn State as the league's 11th member in 1993.

Does Paterno believe bigger necessarily means better?

"They forget I've been in this thing for 60 years, so I don't get a lot of input," he said. "They don't call me and ask, 'What do you think of this?'

"But I do think the trend is toward bigger conferences. I think there's going to be more 12- and 14-team conferences, and maybe even 16-team ones. I don't think we - and by that I mean the Big Ten and anybody else in the BCS - can sit back and watch everybody else move ahead. Because they are going go move ahead, so we'd better starting thinking about where we're going."

Paterno is in favor of a 12th team being added to the Big Ten, a precursor to a split to six-team divisions and a league championship game that would bring in TV dollars and enable member institutions to be competitive with conferences that continue to play weeks after the Big Ten regular season ends.

"When all this happens, I'll probably be out of it," Paterno said.

But he's in it for his 45th season as head Lion, and 61st on campus. As is often the case in the spring, he's downplaying the sort of team that will take the field 4 1/2 months hence for the Sept. 4 season opener against Youngstown State.

"We're really not a very good football team right now," Paterno grumbled. "The quarterbacks are very average, but they're young. Hopefully, over a period of time they'll get better.

"The kicking game is terrible. We're very young in key spots. We have a very average offensive line. We have a lot of work ahead of us. That doesn't mean we can't get it done, but we have to be realistic." *