Even the return of Blair Thomas hasn't pushed aside the perennial late-summer question at Penn State. Who will Joe Paterno tap as his starting quarterback?
A broken record, it seems.
And, as usual, Paterno probably won't answer the question until his Nittany Lions line up for their season opener on Sept. 9 against Virginia.
Almost as pressing this summer is another question, prompted by Penn State's dismal season of a year ago when the Lions struggled to a 5-6 record, Penn State's first losing season in 50 years.
How many wins can Penn State put on the board in 1989? Pick a number from six to nine. Even the pessimists say that Paterno, with the kind of talent he has, couldn't possibly hit rock bottom again.
The optimists say eight wins, maybe even nine, are possible. Preseason polls have the Lions ranked in the lower half of the top 20.
First things first, however.
Thomas, an All-American tailback before a severe knee injury wiped out the 1988 season for him, is supposedly 100 percent, even though his activity was limited during spring practice. Paterno sees Thomas not only contributing heavily to an offense that, at times last year, couldn't punch its way through a wet paper bag, but also contributing in the intangible area of leadership.
"His presence alone has given us a lift," said Paterno. "In my 40 years on campus we've never had a player who practices harder, is more committed, more loyal and better liked than Blair Thomas."
Paterno says Thomas "looks like he's 100 percent, but you never know until he gets banged around a little."
Thomas posted Heisman Trophy numbers in his junior year (1987). He averaged 128 yards a game, which ranked him among the top 10 rushers in the country. He set a Penn State record for total offense with 1,772 yards and won a place next to some former Nittany Lion greats, namely Lydell Mitchell and John Cappelletti.
The question still remains, however, who will be the quarterback who will hand the ball (or pass it) to Thomas? Three are in the running.
The most logical choice would be Tom Bill, the Flemington, N.J., high school All-American who seemed to be on his way last year before getting knocked out with a knee injury in the third game of the season.
Bill is healthy again and out of Paterno's doghouse. Bill's off-the-field behavior didn't set well with Paterno. With Bill's experience, you have to list him as the leading candidate.
Tony Sacca, who came to Penn State with credentials as long as his passing arm, was a freshman fill-in for Bill last year. The kid rattled under the pressure, but Paterno has indicated that the Delran, N.J., star has shown "tremendous improvement in the spring, sharpening his ability to read coverage and his ball-handling skills in particular."
If there is a darkhorse in the QB race it is Matt Nardolillo, who was redshirted a year ago. Over the winter, Paterno had said, "this kid could surprise a lot of people."
With the return of Thomas, Paterno finds himself with a wealth of tailbacks, including Gary Brown, who showed signs of explosiveness even in losing causes.
Brown has been running out of the fullback slot, which would give Penn State an interesting running punch with him alongside Thomas. However, Sam Gash, John Gerak and newcomer Chad Cunningham have been making noise and could press Brown for the fullback duties.
Although the wideout position is green, Paterno said, "We have players there who have the potential." Included in that list is the No. 1 returnee, Dave Daniels, who, last year, demonstrated a "big play personality."
With him are the likes of redshirt junior Terry Smith, sophomore O.J. McDuffie and senior Joe Markiewicz.
The offensive line will be anchored by center Roger Duffy, who, according to Paterno, "could be the best center we've had here." Dave Szott, on the defensive line last year, moves to the offensive line as a guard and will join two experienced trenchmen, Tim Freeman and Ed Monaghan.
A Penn State season doesn't go by with some key position changes. A good number of those came on the defense, a once proud unit that was shattered repeatedly last year.
Actually, one of the changes came last year when former safety Andre Collins moved to inside linebacker. He'll be back at the spot this year, full-time, and Paterno says, "Collins is as good an inside linebacker as there is in America."
Brian Chizmar, the hero back for three seasons, is in a new spot. He'll be the starting outside linebacker. Other familiar names on the defense include Scott Gob, a fifth-year senior; Rich Schonewolf, the dominant personality on the defensive line; Neil Hamilton, Geoff Japchen, Keith Goganious, Eric Renkey and Frank Giannetti.
The last two seasons haven't been particularly bright for Paterno, who watched his teams suffer 10 losses, including a Citrus Bowl wipeout from Clemson. He takes most of the blame.
"I got away from the basics," he said. "My problem last year was I'd get on the field and stick my two cents into something I hadn't discussed with the staff. Or I'd say something in a meeting and not be there long enough to get my point across."
Paterno turned 62 last December, but he promised his staff and players that he's going to act like 52. "I'm gonna do a better coaching job than I've ever done before," he said. "We have some great athletes, but what we have to do is translate potential into production."
The Lions will play their first three games in Beaver Stadium, against Virginia, Temple and Boston College. They go to Texas on Sept. 30. Alabama and Notre Dame are both home opponents, The Tide on Oct. 28 and the Irish on Nov. 18.