UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When preseason football practice opens tomorrow, Sean Lee won't be at his customary linebacker position.
Three months into a long and tedious nine-month rehab assignment following surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, Lee has been forced to trade in his No. 45 Penn State jersey for a whistle and megaphone.
Well, sort of.
Officially, Lee will serve as an honorary captain this season for the Nittany Lions while taking a medical redshirt. Unofficially, he will be a cheerleader and part-time coach.
Lee's father, Craig, isn't sure how his son, projected as a first-team All-American and first-round NFL draft pick before being injured, will handle his new responsibilities.
"I think things are going to get really bad for Sean when practice starts," his father said. "When he's standing around doing nothing, I think that's when he'll really lose it.
"It's going to kill him to not be out there practicing."
Lee was injured while blitzing quarterback Daryll Clark during a scrimmage April 11. He had surgery 17 days later.
An Upper St. Clair graduate who plans to return for his final year of eligibility in 2009, Lee didn't have to go far for advice on how to mend. His father and younger sister, Allie, previously had surgery to repair torn ACLs.
Even so, Lee admits the injury already has tested his patience.
"The first two weeks after surgery were really tough," he said. "I was on painkillers. I didn't sleep well at night. It was pain every day and about 10 days out, all of a sudden, the pain started going away.
"I got off the painkillers and ever since that, I don't have pain during the day. It's just really trying to get the range of motion back."
Life without Lee won't be easy for Penn State's defense, which also lost cornerback Justin King and middle linebacker Dan Connor to the NFL, then saw defensive tackles Chris Baker and Phil Taylor kicked off the team.
Lee had a spectacular junior year. Pro Football Weekly named him a first-team All-American and he finished second in the Big Ten in tackles (138) behind Connor.
Lee reached double digits in tackles in 10 of the last 11 games and was named defensive player of the game in the Alamo Bowl.
He had started 26 consecutive games over the last two years and was in the process of making the move from outside to middle linebacker this spring, just as Connor and Paul Posluszny had done previously.
"It would be tough for someone to tell me there's a better linebacker than Sean Lee in the country," coach Joe Paterno said.
Lee is aware that it could be another year until he finally starts to resemble the football player he was before the injury.
"It's going be tough, especially when my knee starts feeling good," he said. "I'm starting to get confident, and I'm going to want to run out on the field. But everybody I've talked to has told me, 'Don't rush it.' "
Lee's teammates acknowledge they will miss his presence on the field, but they still expect him to be fiery and intense on the sideline.
"He's going to see things a little different now," center A.Q. Shipley said. "That's one of the things I told him, a lot of people have told him. 'Just because you're not out there doing the same things we are on the field, don't shy away from being the leader you've always been.' "
"He doesn't show that he has any weakness when he's coaching," guard Stefen Wisniewski said. "He gets fired up. He's still full of energy. It will be interesting to see how he is when the games start because he's so intense."
Lee plans to assist linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden and defensive coordinator Tom Bradley in practice and games and also will help tutor the linebackers.
"I'm going to try in any way possible to help us win," Lee said. "Coach Vanderlinden does such a wonderful job with the linebackers, anything I can do to help prepare the linebackers, that's what I'm going to do.
"I'll be on the bench, near the bench or I'll be near coach Bradley. I'll be looking across the field, trying to see what the other team is doing, see who they're sending in, trying to pick up the signals, trying to do everything.
"And I'll try to show the linebackers what made me successful, show them what I looked at to help me make plays. We got young guys in that position who are talented and who are going to get better with experience. I am going to try to help them out.
"There's a ton of guys. A lot of them can be better than I am, I'll tell you that. "
Before Lee's injury, NFLDraftScout.com had him ranked as the top outside linebacker in the 2009 draft, as well as the No. 6 player overall.
He has a long way to go to regain that status.
"I'm just going to do the best I can," Lee said. "I just see this [injury] as a delay. I feel like I could be on the same path that I was. I feel like I'm going to be the same player, if not better, when I come back.
"It's just a matter of taking the time to get better. I want to have a senior year here just like my senior year in high school. I feel like that was an extremely special year. I'd like to have the same type of year here. The camaraderie with your friends, playing with the guys you've gone through college with, is something that I cherish."
Ron Musselman can be reached at email@example.com . First Published August 3, 2008 4:00 AM