It was just two years ago that Jack Ham anointed Paul Posluszny as the greatest linebacker in Penn State history, which, considering Ham's College and Pro Football Hall of Fame credentials and his long run as a Penn State broadcaster, was a little like God reaching down and tapping Posluszny on the shoulder.
So it's understandable why Ham doesn't want to cheapen the honor by passing it out again so soon. He won't compare Penn State's fabulous linebackers, senior Dan Connor and junior Sean Lee, to Posluszny. He won't even pick between Connor and Lee, nor will anyone else at Linebacker U., for that matter.
"We ride with both of those guys," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said.
Well, we don't have to be so politically correct.
Lee is the better player even though Connor has received more accolades, the latest coming yesterday when he was named as a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top linebacker. Lee is the best player on the Penn State team. And get this: Next season, when Lee is that much more experienced and has added 5 pounds, he's going to be better than Posluszny.
There are three reasons:
One is Lee's extraordinary athletic ability, which separates him by just a hair from the formidable Connor. "I'd love to know his time over 10 yards," Ham said. "He gets from zero to high speed in a very short period of time. I'm not talking Troy Polamalu quickness, but close."
Two is Lee's competitive streak, which shouldn't surprise anyone who watched him play football and basketball at Upper St. Clair High School. It doesn't matter if it's being first to the football to make a tackle or first in the gassers at the end of practices, "I've never been around anybody who loves to compete as much as he does," Bradley said.
And three is Lee's constant pursuit of perfection. "The kid truly doesn't think he's any good," Bradley said. "He works like a dog to get better."
Lee's father, Craig, a Pittsburgh attorney, deserves credit for passing on all three traits, especially that third one. According to his son, he was and is a supportive, yet demanding dad.
"After games, he would say, 'You played well, but you can do this better.' " Craig Lee could be so tough at times that Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render -- a noted taskmaster himself -- would tell him, "Lay off the kid, will ya, Craig?' "
Just for the record, the old man's demands go beyond the football field. "I'm a finance major," said Sean Lee, a superb student. "He tells me I'm going to get my MBA. There's no debate about it." The kid laughed. "I wouldn't have had it any other way growing up. That makes you better."
Lee is his own toughest critic these days, to the point that Bradley -- another strict details guy -- finds himself wanting to say, on those rare occasions when Lee blows an assignment, "It's OK, Sean. It's OK, really."
Lee had 12 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery in Penn State's 38-7 win Saturday against Wisconsin, yet only remembers missing a tackle on running back P.J. Hill early in the game that led to a 7-yard gain. "If I make that tackle, they probably don't score," he said.
Lee had six tackles, a sack and, along with Connor, forced the key fumble in a 20-10 win against Tennessee in the Outback Bowl last season, yet punished himself during the offseason workouts that followed for being stiff-armed in the chest by running back LaMarcus Coker and missing a tackle that led to a 42-yard touchdown run. It still makes him angry when he thinks about that play.
"I use it as motivation to get better."
Said Ham: "That's not just media-speak with him. He means it. He lives it. He wants to play the perfect game."
Lee is getting closer all the time. He has had at least 10 tackles in five consecutive games, a feat matched at Penn State, Bradley said, only by the great Posluszny. Lee and Connor are the big reasons the Penn State defense ranks in the top 10 in four of the five significant defensive categories.
Bradley and Ham agree Lee will be even better next season. He'll line up against Indiana tomorrow at 230 pounds. He easily could get to 235 next season without losing any of his precious quickness. There's no reason he won't be the best linebacker in America.
If he isn't already.
"This guy is a great player because there is no weakness in his game," Ham said. "He can't help but be a great player, not when you combine his athletic ability with his work ethic and that desire to play the perfect game."
Excuse me while I pause here to make a note to myself:
Check back with Ham next year at this time to see if he's ready for the next consecration.
The guess here is Posluszny's reign will be short.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .