UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State linebacker Sean Lee laughed when asked if he still remembers how to play football.
"I hope so," he said.
When the Nittany Lions kick off preseason practice Aug. 10, it will have been 16 months since Lee previously took part in full-contact drills. And by the time the fifth-year senior co-captain from Upper St. Clair High School finally slips on his No. 45 jersey for the Sept. 5 non-conference opener against Akron, it will have been more than 20 months since he last played in a game.
No player on Penn State's roster is more eager for the start of two-a-day practices than Lee, who had surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in April 2008.
Now he is a nervous bundle of energy who admits he has struggled to control his emotions.
"I can't wait to be playing football again, smelling the grass in August, putting the pads on, getting the little nicks on your nose from hitting, busting your fingers a little bit," he said. "I just am ready to go through it again.
"Whenever I look at the [preseason] magazines or anything college football, thinking about the season, I get hyped up, worked up. Sometimes, if College Football Live is on [ESPN], I have to change the channel because my adrenaline starts running so much."
Lee, 6 feet 2, 236 pounds, was primed for a big senior year last season. As a junior, he was named a first-team All-American by Pro Football Weekly and finished second in the Big Ten Conference in tackles (138) behind former teammate Dan Connor.
Lee also was named defensive MVP of the Alamo Bowl in December 2007 and NFLDraftScout.com ranked him as the top outside linebacker in the 2009 NFL draft, as well as the No. 6 player overall.
But those projections were cast aside when Lee was injured while blitzing quarterback Daryll Clark in a scrimmage April 11, 2008.
Lee had surgery 17 days later and served as an honorary captain and part-time coach last year while sitting out the season to take part in a lengthy rehab process.
He was held out of contact drills this spring and did not participate in Penn State's annual Blue-White intrasquad game, but he insists he is now 100 percent.
"If I had to play tomorrow, I could," Lee said. "I haven't worn a brace in a while. And I've felt like I could play for some time now. I feel like each month I get better and better.
"I'm not necessarily worried about getting hit. I didn't get injured taking a helmet to the knee; it was just taking a cut. I think the hitting will just come naturally."
Lee will have to prove once again that he has not lost a step or his instincts. NFLDraftScout.com has him ranked as the 45th-best senior prospect and a second- or third-round draft pick in 2010. He is rated the second-best inside linebacker behind Florida's Brandon Spikes.
"He's been typical Sean Lee every step of the way," linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden said. "I think he was destroyed for about a month after he got injured and then he started thinking about, 'What's the next step? I've got to come back.' He hasn't looked back since.
"I think Sean will be just the same kind of player he was when he left the game -- I think he'll be great."
Lee enters this season with 239 career tackles and needs only 17 more to crack the top-10 list. He has a chance of joining former All-American linebackers Connor (419) and Paul Posluszny (372) of Hopewell as the top three tacklers in school history.
"Every time I turned around [last year] I had to be careful," coach Joe Paterno said, laughing. "He might have been right up my you-know-what. Sean's an anxious kid. He's a heck of a kid. He's amazing."
Vanderlinden said Lee's skills are comparable to both those of Connor, a third-round pick of the Carolina Panthers in 2008, and Posluszny, a second-round selection of the Buffalo Bills in 2007.
"I see the same qualities in all three of them," Vanderlinden said. "They're all passionate. They're all extremely hard workers. They all have natural abilities where they can separate themselves from everyone else."
Lee's teammates are anticipating his return to the field almost as much as he is.
"[I expect] a lot of plays being made on the defensive side, that's for sure," said Clark, the other senior co-captain. "He's looking very good during these workouts that we've had. I just can't wait to see him in pads, other than at a photo shoot or something like that."
Whether Lee plays inside or outside, he will team with first-team All-Big Ten outside linebacker Navorro Bowman, who led the Lions in tackles last year with 106.
"We're two of the best linebackers in America," Bowman said. "I'm looking forward to playing with him. We're going to be a tough pair to stop and a tough defense to stop."
"I can't wait to be playing football again, smelling the grass in August, putting the pads on ... "
Ron Musselman can be reached at email@example.com .