UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State's players got the message loud and clear.
"If you don't perform, then you won't start," cornerback D'Anton Lynn said Tuesday.
The message was delivered to several players last week in practice and Saturday against Kent State, and the entire team took notice. Defensive ends Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore were benched to start the game, and running back Evan Royster sat for much of the second half.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Evan Royster (22) will have to play better to get playing time under Joe Paterno’s watch this season.
"If you don't perform in practice and your backup's playing better, they're definitely not hesitating to switch your spot," Lynn said.
Joe Paterno has always been loyal to upperclassmen starters, but after sloppy play during the first two games, he wanted the players to understand they can't take anything for granted.
"[I] got around in more drills, pushed some kids, literally threatened a couple of them," JoePa said of practice last week.
He recalled telling some of the players, "If you don't start hitting some people a little tougher than what you're doing, I'm going to drop you."
A thigh injury played a role in Crawford seeing less playing time, but it also was about getting sent the message. Sean Stanley and Pete Massaro started at the defensive end spots instead of Crawford and Latimore.
"[Coach Paterno is] just trying to make a point that you can't settle down and get settled in and think that you're going to play no matter what," said receiver Graham Zug, who also saw less playing time. "You have to practice hard and play hard, too, to play here at Penn State."
All of this gets back to the ongoing Royster issue. The senior may be approaching the school's career rushing record, but this season hasn't started anywhere near the way he had hoped.
"Coach Paterno knows who's the best, and he's going to play whoever is helping out the offense," Zug said.
So far this season, Stephfon Green, not Royster, has fit that description. Royster has only 110 yards on 31 carries in three games, while Green has looked more explosive in gaining 104 yards on 22 carries.
Paterno defended Royster on Tuesday, saying, "I don't have any gripes with him," and tried to end any speculation about a running back controversy.
"Royster practices hard," JoePa said. "He's working at it. And I think - looking for a story and what's wrong with Royster, he's in Joe's doghouse or something like that? Royster, you know, I've challenged all of those guys. I've said, 'Come on, you've got to carry this football team. Gotta get these young guys to [see] what it takes to win. Show them what practice is all about.' And Royster has done that."
The second-half benching of Royster, Paterno added, was because the Nittany Lions "had pretty good control of the football game [and] it was a good time to play some of the younger kids."
Paterno said safety Drew Astorino's shoulder "still bothers him," and it affects his performance at times.
"He doesn't practice as intensely as he ordinarily would," JoePa said. "I think he's done some things very well, and some other things he's tried to be careful with the shoulder."
Astorino didn't play as much as usual Saturday, but Paterno gave no indication it was because he was being sent a message.
"I'd say he's done a good job and better than good job when you consider all the physical circumstances around him," Paterno said.
Tight end Andrew Szczerba is still battling back problems and likely will miss the entire season, Paterno said.
"He hasn't done a thing. He hasn't even put on a uniform," JoePa said. "He comes out in street clothes. And we're trying to figure out what's best because he's going to lose the whole year."
Receiver Curtis Drake, who suffered a broken leg in preseason camp, still has yet to take part in any activities.
"He's got some kind of a thing he takes to class, to walk to class," Paterno said. "That's too bad because he's one of the better athletes. Drake's really - we were really looking forward to him doing some things that we had to give up because he can throw the ball, he can run the ball, heck of a receiver. ... He's going to be OK, it's just going to take a while."
Quarterback Rob Bolden delivered a vicious hit on a Kent State defensive player at the end of a run Saturday, which may have looked good but wasn't the smartest thing to do.
"He showed to us that he's a tough kid and he's trying to gain every extra yard that he can to help this offense succeed," Zug said. "But right after, we all told him, 'You have to start sliding; we can't be having you take those hits.'"
Zug also said Bolden has "grown a tremendous amount" in his short time at PSU.
"He came in, he was a real quiet, shy kid, and now he's one of our top leaders on offense," Zug said. "He demands our attention in the huddle, and he's doing a great job with that. Everyone respects him and knows that he can lead this team as far as we want to go."