ORLANDO - Those who followed Drew Astorino's high school career knew there had to be a place for him in a major college football program, especially after he led General McLane High to Pennsylvania state championships in football and basketball his senior year.

Astorino wanted to play at a Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) university but the recruiters weren't exactly beating down the door at his Edinboro home because he was smaller and slower than the more highly regarded players.

"If somebody asked me, I would say I thought I could play Division I-A football," Astorino, the starting strong safety for Penn State, said the other day. "Now does that mean I was 100 percent sure? No.

"I was really glad Penn State gave me the chance because I wanted to see if I could play here. If I couldn't, then I couldn't. I told my dad I wanted to take the shot and at least see what I could do at the big-time level."

Actually, Penn State first invited Astorino to be a preferred walk-on. But Joe Paterno had a change of heart and offered him one of the program's final scholarships awarded to the freshman class of 2007.

Two years later, the 5-foot-10, 194-pound Astorino, a sophomore in terms of eligibility, would earn the starting job in preseason camp and keep it the entire season. He finished fourth on the team in tackles with 62, including 37 solo stops, despite a left shoulder injury that flared up on occasion.

With one game remaining, Penn State's Capital One Bowl contest tomorrow against LSU, Astorino critiqued his 2009 season as "OK. . . . I need to make some more big plays. I know I can do a lot better."

Maybe, but considering where he stood as a high school senior wishing and hoping to get one chance, the season has to be considered a victory.

"I came to Penn State not knowing if I'd ever get a chance to play," he said. "But I worked pretty hard and now I'm playing and now I have to focus on getting better every time we go out on the field."

Astorino grew up participating in all sports. He had a real talent for wrestling, a natural since his father was an assistant coach at Edinboro University, a perennial Division I wrestling power, for 23 years.

But when the time came to focus on one sport per season, Astorino passed on wrestling in favor of basketball. In that sport, as well as football, his toughness and nose for the ball overshadowed any size issues.

"My competitive nature has always been there," he said. "It started basically playing with my friends. We were always competitive in everything, even Monopoly. That's kind of bred in me, I would say."

That carried over into college, where Astorino felt that to succeed, he had to work harder than everyone else.

"I'm obviously a pretty undersized guy so I feel like I've got to throw everything into every play if I want to hang with this kind of caliber," he said. "So when somebody maybe gives 100 percent, I feel like I've got to give 120. So that's what I try to do on every play."

In addition to his nagging shoulder injury, Astorino sprained his knee in the final regular-season game against Michigan State. He spent a month rehabilitating the knee and resumed practicing with the team last week when they started pre-bowl preparations in Daytona Beach.

Astorino and Penn State's defensive backs will have their hands full tomorrow against LSU's big wide receivers. Brandon LaFell and Terrance Toliver, who combined for 99 catches during the season, go around 205 pounds, with LaFell measuring 6-foot-3 and Toliver 6-5. Both bring plenty of speed.

"They're very fast and obviously very tall," Astorino said. "They've made a lot of good catches. We've got to lock them down. We've got to play sound defense. Everybody's got to do their job on every single play."

Coaching stress. Paterno will conduct his only pregame news conference today, and certainly will be asked about Florida coach Urban Meyer and his health issues related to the stress of running his program.

But Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley had a reason yesterday why Paterno hasn't succumbed to such pressure: "Coach doesn't have any stress. He creates stress, so that's the biggest difference," Bradley said.

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.