In the fourth quarter of the Orange Bowl Nittany Lion fans felt their stomachs sink into their shoes as their All-World stud linebacker Paul Posluszny went down with an injured knee. In his place stepped a true freshman named Sean Lee. I'll admit. I was scared. Who was this kid? He was a special teams player the second half of the season, but surely he couldn't be as good as Poz. The game would go on to overtime. Then there was a second and third overtime. Each time the ball came his way he came up with a game saving stop. It was then the Nittany Lions learned that Sean Lee is a player.
Sean Lee makes a stop in overtime of the Orange Bowl
After the Orange Bowl Lee committed himself to getting stronger. Getting faster. Getting better. When Paul Posluszny ran extra drills, Sean Lee was there. The coaches were amazed at how much Lee was willing to do. How much he was willing to adsorb. And how much punishment he was willing to take.
Penn State already had arguably the best group of linebackers in the nation last year. Posluszny, Connor, and Shaw were all returning in 2006. It would have been simple to leave well enough alone. Why tamper with something working so well? But as spring practice wore on it became more and more apparent to the coaches that they had to find a way to get Sean Lee on the field. So they moved Poz from outside linebacker to middle linebacker and they moved Tim Shaw to a LB/DE hybrid position. They basically threw out the old 4-3 playbook and went to a 3-4 because Sean Lee is that good.
This week Dan Connor, who leads the team in tackles and sacks, was asked, "Are you the best linebacker on the team right now?" He laughed off the question and gave praise to Poz and Shaw. Then he said this:
He doesn't get a lot of recognition, but he's playing real good football, he's tough, and he really embraces his role of being able to go onto the field.
Against Ohio State Lee led all defenders on both teams with 11 tackles. Lee is third on the team in tackles with 27 behind only Poz and Connor. What makes his stats more impressive is that Lee is often removed on third down in favor of the nickel back. What makes good players great is that they find little ways to motivate themselves. Being the best isn't good enough. It's not enough to beat your competition. You have to dominate them. You have to play the perfect game. Few players have that. Poz has it, and it sounds like Lee does too.
"I did well this week," he said. "But I want to play even better next week."
For the third straight year, Penn State has a sophomore linebacker having a breakout year. And the tradition of Linebacker U lives on.