UNIVERSITY?PARK - Most of the reporters must have known better. Linebacker Sean Lee said only a few people asked him during Penn State football media day last week where he would line up this fall.
That question, he said, mostly comes from friends and family wondering whether the fifth-year senior will line up inside or outside as he returns in 2009 from a right ACL tear suffered in the 2008 spring drills. Lee wasn't sure or worried, and head coach Joe Paterno doesn't divulge many plans unless necessary.
"You have to do everything well to be a linebacker. Play the run, blitz," said Lee. "It's just the schemes and reads can change a little. We can move around."
Conventional wisdom among many Nittany Lion followers thought Lee would move to inside linebacker for his senior season, the way Dan Connor did in 2007 after Paul Posluszny graduated. But Lee's injury delayed that. Now, with promising sophomore Michael Mauti done for this year after tearing his right ACL in practice Sunday, that may never become reality.
Paterno, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden said they didn't know last week who would line up where. They weren't too concerned, as Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull returned 49 career starts and provided versatile options along with Bani Gbadyu and Nate Stupar. Mauti also hoped to contend for a starting role after playing as a true freshman last season.
Vanderlinden said last week a lineup probably would not take shape until 10 days or so before the Sept. 5 opener vs. Akron, as the team was only a couple sessions into preseason practice and didn't get a good look yet at the younger players. But the returning experience indicates it could be Hull back in the middle, and Bowman back outside opposite Lee.
"It really depends on what we decide to do," said Bradley. "We'll find the best players and the scheme we want to develop, and then we'll put them through the first scrimmage. We have a lot of versatility with the athletic skill."
Lee represents a large part of it. He was the latest All-American from "Linebacker U." and many thought he could join Posluszny and Connor as Bednarik Award winners as the nation's top linebacker. But he hasn't played a meaningful down since the 2007 Alamo Bowl and missed the action dearly.
"You can get too worked up and anxious and out of control, running all over out there," said Lee. "You have to be composed, play fast, and tough, and be able to read things and stay in control."
Bowman, meanwhile, had his own breakout season in 2008 as he drew comparisons to another No. 11, Lavar Arrington. He led the team with 106 tackles and his most notable play was recovering a Terrelle Pryor fumble that set up the go-ahead score in the win at Ohio State. Bowman said Arrington asked him to switch jerseys after meeting him last fall during his game visits.
"It's an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence as him," said Bowman. "I take it as a plus for me and hopefully leave with the same impact."
He must, however, stay in Paterno's good graces after getting put on probation and community service in the spring for admitting he smoked marijuana after already being on probation for his role in a 2007 on-campus fight. But the program has tolerated Bowman's behavior, as he has dealt with the deaths of his father and high school coach.
"I think he realized that he's wasting a great opportunity in his life. In all fairness to the kid, he has had a lot of things happen in his life," said Paterno. "I think he's worked hard. He's tried to be a leader. I think he has been. I don't think we have any problems with him."
Hull, from nearby Penns Valley High School, said over the summer he expected to retain his starting middle linebacker job despite facing criticism from fans and media for his perceived slow feet. He finished second on the team with 75 tackles last year and started all 13 games.
Gbadyu, a redshirt junior, started the first three games at outside linebacker last year before giving way to Bowman. Stupar, a redshirt sophomore from State College, played special teams last year and could contend for a starting job this year.
Others vying for time are Chris Colasanti and Michael Zordich listed inside and Jon Ditto and Michael Yancich listed outside. Other linebackers on the roster are Nick Delligatti, Brian Irvin, Josh Matzkin, Kenny Pollock, and Loyalsock graduate Jamie Van Fleet.
But it's Lee and Bowman who draw most of the attention. They are both All-America, Bednarik and Lombardi award contender possibilities and were recently named the best linebacker duo in the nation by Yahoo!
Having defensive tackles Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu set up front could free Lee and Bowman to make the plays Nittany Lion fans are accustomed to seeing.
"Sean plays every play whether he's in the game or not," said Bradley. "It will be nice having him out in front of me instead of standing there next to me."