Since the conclusion of the most recent college football season, the Big Ten, a conference once trademarked by its linebackers, yielded an exodus of talent. Iowa's mega-talented duo, Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, left for the NFL. Same with Northwestern's Tim McGarigle, the league's second-leading tackler. Then, Ohio State's A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel departed in tandem, and, by the time that force of talent was training for the NFL, the number of exceptional linebacking units within the Big Ten had dipped from many to one.
The erosion rolled through every spot but Penn State, a program where A-list linebackers come as surely as death and taxes. Only now, though, does Penn State's starting group -- Paul Posluszny, Tim Shaw and Dan Connor -- appear in such contrast. Last year, they competed within a league of standouts. Now, they simply stand out.
As the Nittany Lions approach their Saturday spring game, they're counting on the linebacker spot -- already deep with tradition -- to carry a defense sapped elsewhere by departures. "We are going to be the most experienced unit on the field," said Posluszny, a Butkus Award winner last season as a junior.
Among the six Big Ten linebackers with the most tackles in 2005, four are gone. The two that remain -- Posluszny and Connor -- play on the outside for Penn State. Connor, a junior, has started for 1 1/2 seasons, creating a fair comparison to a younger Posluszny. Shaw, meanwhile, has built his reputation on speed. He finished with 76 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks last season.
Still, Penn State's 2006 linebacking unit, for all its natural talent, was enabled by a moment of misfortune. In the Orange Bowl, Posluszny limped off the field with partially torn knee ligaments, fearing the worst. And, as the short story went, the injury turned a tough decision into a cinch. Facing a long rehabilitation, Posluszny elected not to leave early for the NFL. He'd return for another season, the lone first- or second-team 2005 All-Big Ten linebacker to do so.
This spring, Penn State coaches have withheld Posluszny from full-contact drills, agonizing for a player who treats hitting as a food-water-shelter necessity. When Penn State scrimmages or runs through its most aggressive drills, Posluszny often sidles up with the strength coach for sprints. Other times, he positions himself behind the defense -- sophomore Sean Lee, playing in place of Posluszny, has shined this spring -- and watches every snap, imaging how he'd react.
"At first, I was really, really angry about the whole situation," said Posluszny, who joked that he beats up his roommates to relieve the pent-up aggression. "Especially when we started practicing. That was very frustrating at first. But I realized I still needed to get something out of it ..."
So he's turned into a de facto coach for the Lions' young linebackers -- Lee, Jerome Hayes and Dontey Brown. He has spent hours watching every snap he played last season, studying his performance for flaws. Though he must wear a black brace on his right knee -- he doesn't expect to need it by the fall -- his speed workouts should help his quickness once he can return full time to the field.
A recent Sports Illustrated online ranking called Posluszny the fourth-best returning player in college football. That's not to suggest that he doesn't think about his postponed path to the NFL. Posluszny speaks frequently with Michael Robinson and Tamba Hali, two teammates in 2005 who are preparing for the NFL. They've told him about their workouts and warned him about how to deal with agents. "Those are all the things you don't think about as a player," Posluszny said.
"It's tough to talk about what I'd rather be doing," he later added. "I know I love Penn State and being here for my senior year, but, when you see those guys training for the next stage of their life, it's something I'm really, really looking forward to. But it's just not my time. We've got one more special year to have at Penn State."John Beale, Post-Gazette
Ohio State's Brandon Schnittker is tackled by Penn State defensers, from left, Dan Connor, Tim Shaw and Paul Posluszny Oct. 8, 2005 at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa.
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Chico Harlan can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1227.