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Relaxed feeling on display

Commentary

August 10, 2012
By Philip Cmor (pcmor@altoonamirror.com) , The Altoona Mirror

UNIVERSITY PARK - As they got called over to pose for a photo together, Michael Zordich joked with fellow senior and second generation Penn State football player Michael Mauti.

"Do you feel like we're married?" Zordich asked, playing on the fact that they have become the two apparently inseparable faces of a Nittany Lion football team perhaps being watched by the media more than any of its predecessors.

That led to a bit of an entertaining back and forth between the mainstays on Thursday morning at Beaver Stadium. And it kind of summed up the atmosphere at Penn State football media day.

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The players, remarkably, seemed as loose as ever. They joked about the new relaxed policy on facial hair and guard John Urschel's increasingly legendary intelligence, talked about the new uniforms.

Mauti said it was just like any other media day, answering all the questions from the press and not trying to say the wrong thing. Maybe that was the point, though: Considering what the Lions have been through over the last nine months - and especially the last two weeks, since the NCAA hammered the program with harsh and unprecedented penalties - this was something of a return to normalcy.

At least for the time being.

Article Photos

Some members of the Penn?State football team — Derek?Day (24), Eric Shrive (75) and Adam Gress (58) got a chance to joke around a little bit and take part in the media day festivities at Beaver Stadium Thursday afternoon.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich

Sure, there still were questions about the effects the Sandusky scandal had brought upon the team, but there were a lot of questions being asked about how the quarterbacks were coming along, finding a way to replace four starters in the secondary and what kind of impact Bill Belton might have as the starting tailback.

They actually were talking about - and playing - football again.

"That's the best feeling of it all," Zordich said. "That's what we came here to do, to play football. We've been dealing with a lot of distractions and a lot of very serious topics. Now that you are back on the football field with the guys you're going to be playing with, it helps to ease your mind and let things go. This is what I love to do. We're finally back on the football field playing ball."

New coach Bill O'Brien said the players have handled the adversity well.

"The morale's been excellent," O'Brien said. "The first day we got them up early. We got them up at 5:15. These kids were ready to go. They showed up early for practice that day. Has everything been pretty at practice? No. But there's been a lot of hard working, a lot of guys out there that really care about each other, care about playing for Penn State, care about going to school here, and the morale's been excellent."

That certainly will be tested in the coming weeks and months, when what's happened at Penn State will be rehashed every time the Lions take the field, every time Silas Redd scores a touchdown for USC, Justin Brown catches a pass at Oklahoma or Anthony Fera kicks a field goal at Texas.

There's also the fact that this could be the pivotal season in the history of Nittany Lion football. Whether this team succumbs to the burden or pulls together and has a winning season probably will impact Penn State football for the next dozen years.

A successful season could fuel a probationary period somewhat like that recently experienced by Southern Cal. The Nittany Lions would have a better shot at holding on to their top current players, who, because of the NCAA's indecipherable wisdom, are still eligible to transfer through next summer. That, combined with O'Brien and his staff's ability to sell high school prospects that they'll be getting prepared for the NFL would presumably keep high-end recruits coming and the Lions above water until the bowl ban elapses.

Their potential place in history was not lost on senior cornerback Stephon Morris.

"That's always on our mind," Morris said. "We know this team is going to be very special. It's going to mean a lot for this university."

The opportunity is there. The linebacking corps is top-notch. While Redd is a huge loss, running back might turn out to be the deepest position on the team. Brown was a proven receiver but inconsistent, and O'Brien's resume with the Patriots shows an ability to succeed without big-name wideouts.

On Thursday, the players could focus on things like that for the first time in a while.

"We just want to win games," Morris said. "We just want to hush everyone up and focus and put it back on football."

Cmor can be reached at 946-7440 or pcmor@altoonamirror.com.

 
 

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