Nothing New at Linebacker U

Penn State
Linebackers Dan Connor, rear, and Sean Lee ranked 2-3 in tackles for Penn State last season behind Paul Posluszny. (2006 Photo By Michael Conroy -- AP)
By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007

When coaches talk of Penn State linebacker Sean Lee, they describe a high-strung perfectionist who plays with the burning intensity of a person engaged in constant self-evaluation. When they speak of fellow linebacker Dan Connor, coaches paint the picture of a cerebral, businesslike player.

Indeed, Lee and Connor work in their own ways. But it's what they have in common that has Penn State hoping for another foray into the national spotlight.

" 'Good' is kind of their enemy," said Nittany Lions assistant Tom Bradley, who supervises Penn State's defense. " 'Good' isn't what they want anymore. They want to be better than that."

Not much has changed in State College, Pa.: Joe Paterno is returning for his 42nd season as head coach, his Nittany Lions once again will eschew flashy uniforms for their trademark simple threads, and Linebacker U's hopes for a national championship will rest on a pair of talented linebackers.

Even with the loss of all-American linebacker Paul Posluszny, the school's all-time leader in tackles, the Nittany Lions may not miss a beat with Lee and Connor.

"To be a good linebacker, you need to have good vision and understand where certain alleys and lanes are," Bradley said. "They both have a knack for the ball."

Despite playing in Posluszny's immense shadow, Connor needs just 99 tackles to surpass his predecessor's record. Connor recorded 113 tackles last season, just three shy of Posluszny.

"He's a great player, a complete player," Lee said of Connor. "He's good in the pass game, great against the run, great blitzer."

During the offseason, Connor made a relatively smooth transition from outside linebacker to inside linebacker. From his new spot, which once belonged Posluszny, the Nittany Lions are banking that Connor can step into a leadership role.

"The thing about him is he's even keeled," Lee said. "That allows him to be calm, and that's why I think he's so instinctual, because he's just calm."

Lee, however, supplies a sense of balance.

Lee grew up under the roof of a sports-crazed father, which is why at age 6 he stepped outside with his baseball bat and spent hours practicing hitting against his very own pitching machine. Lee first was a basketball standout, playing in the AAU summer circuits as a point guard before growing into a small forward with a nasty streak.

"I was always more of a defensive guy," Lee. "I took pride in being able to lock down anybody."

By the time he entered high school, Lee noticed that the most enjoyable part of basketball was the contact. He liked to be physical and drew far more joy from the act of denying baskets than scoring then. It was then that Lee came to a crucial realization. "As I got older and bigger," Lee said. "I got to be more of a football player than a basketball player."

As a sophomore last season, Lee recorded 90 tackles, ranking third on the team behind Posluszny and Connor.

"He's very tough on himself," Bradley said. "Sometimes he's his own worst enemy."

During Penn State's victory over Tennessee in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day, Lee and Connor delivered what they hope was a preview for this year. They combined to force a critical fumble, which led to the touchdown that swung the game for the Nittany Lions.

"We just want to live up to that level," Lee said of the program's Linebacker U nickname. "We want to keep that name. There's a reason we got that name, and we don't want to be the group that lets it down."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company