The first thing Chima Okoli noticed was an old photo.
Penn State’s starting right tackle had just made the trip to Joe Paterno’s McKee Street house along with more than a dozen other seniors this summer. It was the start of a more open dialogue between the coach and his team, and the players didn’t waste time making themselves comfortable.
“There’s a picture of Joe and (quarterbacks coach) Jay (Paterno) and the rest of his kids – probably from around 1812 or somewhere,” Okoli deadpanned. “They’re all young and Jay’s a baby. We clowned him about it for three straight days. I don’t think he liked it.
“But the house, it’s like walking into a football museum. You see awards, letters from old players. You see all these tangible things and you know you’re walking through history. (Joe’s wife) Sue offered cookies like always.
“We sat down, talked football and hashed things out. It was definitely productive. It’s something I think we’re going to do again this season.”
That’s a step in the right direction for the Nittany Lions, who are looking to atone for last year’s disappointing 7-6 finish starting with Saturday’s season opener against Indiana State.
Penn State was decidedly lacking in senior leadership last season and Paterno has said he did not do a good job handling the squad.
This year, both sides are working to change that.
It began this preseason with a group of seniors sitting down at Paterno’s home in State College.
“Some of the guys came over to the house one day,” Paterno said. “A whole mess of ’em – 15, 16 kids came over – wanted to just talk a little bit about where we were.”
“It was kind of funny,” said safety Nick Sukay, one of the guests. “All of us, about 15 of us sitting around the table. A little squished in, but we had a good conversation and everything. He has a nice little house.”
Among the topics discussed were selecting captains for the upcoming season.
The Lions certainly aren’t lacking for leadership candidates. Penn State is expected to have 12 seniors in the starting lineup on Saturday and a few more like fullback Joe Suhey, linebacker Nate Stupar and guard Johnnie Troutman also getting some snaps.
So there was a debate on how to handle the situation and whether to name captains for the entire season, go with different players for each game or perhaps try both.
“I debated what I wanted to do with the captains because we have a lot of good seniors,” Paterno said. “And I wasn’t particularly anxious to have anybody pick the seniors and whatever. So they ran with the ball on this.
“We had the vote (Monday). I haven’t talked to the squad about it yet, so I don’t think I can tell you guys anything yet. I’ll probably let the squad know (first), maybe make an announcement Thursday.”
Also discussed was the status of then-exiled tailback Stephfon Green.
Paterno had dismissed him from the team before the start of preseason camp but reinstated him last week.
Green had plenty of support from his fellow seniors, which likely played a role in Paterno changing his mind.
“We briefly touched on it (with Joe),” Sukay said. “I think I speak for everyone when I say Stephfon is a great player to have on the team. He brings different dimensions you just can’t teach.
“He’s really a team player who will do anything to help. He’s real emotional. He gets us fired up. We’re real glad to have him back.”
at No. 25 Penn State
Beaver Stadium, State College
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