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For Lions, it’s great to return to field

After months of distractions involving players and JoePa, spring drills start Monday.

It’s not remotely close to the start of the season, but Penn State will take it.

Getting to focus back on football – any form of it – will be welcomed for the Nittany Lions, who start spring practice on Monday after a somewhat queasy three months following the team’s Alamo Bowl victory that capped off the 2007 season.

With a senior-heavy squad returning for 2008, the Lions are hopeful that a strong dose of leadership will help cure what ailed them in last year’s 9-4 campaign.

They’ll need plenty of it to battle the distractions that are already starting to creep up around the program. Joe Paterno’s status is at the forefront as he enters the final season of his contract. Though the 81-year-old Penn State legend has repeatedly expressed a desire to coach for the next “two, three, four, five years,” it’s far from a certainty that university president Graham Spanier will permit him to do so.

It’s also likely Penn State will start spring drills tomorrow with six players on an indefinite leave from the team – four of whom would either be starters or battling for a starting job for the fall. The statuses of Chris Baker, Chris Bell, Navorro Bowman, Andrew Quarless, Phil Taylor and Knowledge Timmons are all up in the air.

A seventh player – senior linebacker Tyrell Sales – looked to be in a similar situation after being arrested in Pittsburgh last weekend following a St. Patrick’s Day celebration, but charges against him were dropped a few days later.

The following is a breakdown of some of the positional battles the coaches will be monitoring this spring, leading up to the Blue-White Game on April 19.

QUARTERBACK

All eyes will be on the battle between junior Daryll Clark and sophomore Pat Devlin to clear up the murkiest spot on the team. Devlin, a Downingtown East graduate, has one of the top high school careers in Pennsylvania history on his side, but Clark begins in the driver’s seat because of his seniority and vocal personality. Clark impressed with his legs in the Alamo Bowl, but his throwing prowess remains under scrutiny. History says that Paterno always goes with the older guy under center – at least to start the season – but it’s entirely possible both Clark and Devlin will see the field.

TAILBACK

A very youthful group returns for the Lions, but there is certainly promise. Sophomore Evan Royster averaged a tantalizing 6.3 yards per carry as a freshman and figures to be the feature back this year. But durability is a concern as he wasn’t able to finish a few games last year because of various injuries. Redshirt freshman speedster Stephfon Green drew rave reviews last year and should see his share of touches.

Behind them are questions marks. Brent Carter has split time between safety and tailback, with defense being his likely destination this year. True freshman Brandon Beachum got a head start by enrolling this winter and could see time as well.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Things are solid on the ends with Maurice Evans and Josh Gaines as starters, but the questions will come in the middle, where players are either suspended for off-the-field issues (Baker, Taylor) or recovering from serious injury (Jared Odrick). Still, DL coach Larry Johnson somehow keeps managing to plug any holes.

The role of Jerome Hayes is up in the air as he recuperates from a torn ACL. Hayes was listed as a linebacker, but played rush end last year.

LINEBACKER

Gone is the school’s career leading tackler in Dan Connor, but Sean Lee looks more than capable of replacing his leadership and production. How the unit will line up, though, is up in the air. Sales played mostly weak side last season, but could be moved to the middle or even down to defensive end. Certainly there’s no shortage of talented young ’backers to fight for a starting job, including sophomore Chris Colasanti, who earned a spot on the two-deep by the end of his true freshman season. If Bowman is reinstated, he should push seriously for a starting job, as he did last year.

Other names to watch for are Bani Gbadyu, Josh Hull, Nate Stupar, Andrew Dailey and true freshman Michael Mauti, who enrolled a semester early.

DEFENSIVE BACK

Lydell Sargeant usurped A.J. Wallace’s starting spot to open the ’07 season, but Wallace ended up taking the job by the end of the year. With Justin King off to the NFL, both will now likely start. Anthony Scirrotto is a rock in center field while Tony Davis may face a battle with fellow senior Mark Rubin, who filled in for Davis after his appendicitis operation late in the year.

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