As nearly everyone does shortly before an immense challenge, Kevin Thompson wonders: Am I good enough? In his situation, there also are more specific questions: Do I have the physical and leadership skills necessary to quarterback Penn State to a national championship? His answers: yes, yes and yes.

"He's ready," Thompson said, choosing to speak about himself in the third person early in the evening before Penn State began preseason practice. "He knows he's capable of it. He's confident. Excited. Itching for this to come for the last month and a half."

He won't have to wait nearly as long for a big game. The Nittany Lions--ranked No. 1 by Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News in their season previews and No. 3 in the Associated Press preseason media poll released Saturday--open by playing No. 4 Arizona in the Pigskin Classic here Aug. 28.

That would seem like a less-than-ideal situation considering all Thompson has endured since last season, when he threw more interceptions (eight) than touchdown passes (six), and Penn State managed a total of just one touchdown in losses to Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin that left the Nittany Lions with a 9-3 record.

When about a dozen football players who had earned various honors last season were introduced at halftime of a home basketball game against Indiana during the winter, Penn State fans booed Thompson. His e-mail messages have been even nastier--and the Sporting News season preview said: "The key will be quarterback Kevin Thompson, who needs to . . . make the easy pass and hand off to a stable of good backs."

The 6-foot-5 Gaithersburg native and former Damascus High standout shrugs and says: "Comes with the job." Thompson allowed a few teammates to view some of the especially vile e-mails, which he says "probably came from a bunch of kids trying to be cool with their friends, telling them: 'Watch what I do to Kevin Thompson.'

"But there's nothing better than when someone tells you that you can't do something. It gives you that much more motivation."

Significantly, Thompson's strongest support comes from his teammates and Coach Joe Paterno. With 16 senior starters returning, including the punter and place kicker, the squad voted on captains near the end of spring practice and chose just two: linebacker Brandon Short for the defense and Thompson for the offense.

"If it had been real close between two on offense, we probably would have had two offensive captains," said offensive coordinator Fran Ganter. "I'm pretty sure it was an overwhelming majority for those two guys."

Short and Thompson have taken their roles at least as seriously as any captains at Penn State. For the "voluntary" summer workouts that cannot be supervised by coaches, Short and Thompson made sure each of the dozens of players on campus had a legitimate excuse for being absent. The consequence, assessed by Short and Thompson, was extra running.

"Kevin definitely came down on some kids, even up to the day before we reported," senior wide receiver Chafie Fields said on the first day of formal preseason practice. "Look around here. You'll definitely see him with his head held high."

Thompson said he had some blunt questions for some of his less-motivated teammates: "Why are you here? Do you want to be here? Because if you don't, we have guys [on the team without scholarships] willing to work for what they want."

"You ask 'em that," Thompson added, "and they pretty much get the picture."

Overall, the statistical picture Thompson crafted last season was impressive. He had a higher completion percentage (53.5) and more passing yards (1,691) than three of the best quarterbacks in Penn State history--Kerry Collins, Todd Blackledge and Chuck Fusina--had in their first seasons as a starter.

However, Thompson passed for only 106 yards against Ohio State and lost a fumble deep in Penn State territory that Buckeyes linebacker Jerry Rudzinski recovered for a touchdown. Against Michigan, he was 8 for 21 and threw two interceptions. Against Wisconsin, he was 10 for 18 for just 88 yards. The combined scores in those three games: Opponents 79, Penn State 12.

Paterno also blamed much of his team's lack of scoring in those three games on three units--the wide receivers, special teams and the entire defense--and himself.

"When we got behind, we couldn't make anything happen," he said. "Part of that was my fault, because I maybe overestimated how dominant our defense and our kicking game would be" and decided that even the toughest games could be won with a very conservative offense.

"That was probably dumb on my part," Paterno added. "We were not prepared to make big plays and come from behind."

The coach continued his criticism of the wide receivers into this preseason, saying: "I'm not sure they know what being good is. They need to learn that every ball is theirs. They can't screw around and drop balls in practice and expect to catch them in the game. . . .

"A couple of them think they're better than they are. They don't pay attention to details. They need to make plays that lesser receivers we've had made in games."

During his preseason evaluations, Paterno also put pressure on his defense, which, with Short and LaVar Arrington at two of the linebacker positions, Courtney Brown at one end and David Macklin at one cornerback spot, has as much talent as any defensive group in his 34 years as head coach.

"I was disappointed we didn't score more points on defense last year," he said, alluding to four interception returns for touchdowns. "The great defenses we've had around here [which anchored two national championship teams and 10 others that won at least 11 games] really turned games around by making some plays. . . . To go down as one of the great defenses we've had, they've got to just take over football games."

Paterno did not publicly criticize Thompson, in part because so many others already have, but he indicated he might be less hesitant to use backup Rashard Casey.

There will be no easing into this season for Penn State and Thompson, who play at No. 12 Miami in their fourth game. That's why those summer workouts that Short and Thompson oversaw with such dedication were so important.

Penn State is one of a dozen or so schools that has winning the national championship as one of the goals it regards as realistic each season. A loss to Arizona or Miami might not destroy that dream. But a poor performance by Thompson would cause his e-mail bin to rise and Paterno to give more thought to Casey.

Thompson long ago completed a self-critique of last season: "If I played well, did I come to practice thinking I was the greatest? No. When we lost, did I hang my head? No. Did I go out there with the same intensity, if not more? Yes."

One distraction Thompson will not have during the season is academics. He needs just one course, an elective, to earn a degree in kinesiology and will fulfill it with introductory biology. He completed all the requirements in his major, including a six-credit internship, over the summer.

Some senior teammates on offense have noticed a difference in Thompson, with lineman Gabe Tincher saying: "He's a lot more mature. You could see it starting at the end of last season [which included Thompson completing 14 for 27 with a touchdown against Kentucky in the Outback Bowl] and in spring practice.

"He has a presence in the huddle. We're focused on him, what he's saying. He has a great grasp of things now--and I think he's ready to have a great season."

By doing their jobs, Tincher and the others on every unit will be making Thompson's that much easier.

"We've got plenty of leaders," said guard-center Eric Cole. "I don't think Kevin has to do anything special."

Maturity allows Thompson and his teammates not to get too carried away with what's necessary for victory.

"We have to make a big play now and then," Thompson said, "but not necessarily a 40- or 50-yard bomb. A big play could be on third and seven, when you catch the ball at six yards and fight for the extra yard that moves the chains. Or it could be third and one when [one of the half-dozen or so gifted running backs] fights for that extra yard. That's what we need to stress as well."

Thompson said choosing Penn State "was the best decision I ever made" and, looking forward to Arizona, added: "Right away, we'll find out where we stand."