STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – One of the first questions Joe Paterno had for an assistant after the Hall of Fame coach returned home this week from the hospital was about Penn State's quarterbacks.
Even an injured right shoulder and pelvis can't get that position battle out of Paterno's mind.
About the only story line that could knock the race for the open quarterback job from the top of the Penn State headlines occurred when a receiver running a route blindsided Paterno at practice Sunday while the coach was taking notes on the defense. Paterno got back up, continued surveying practice on his feet before being encouraged to be examined by the team doctor.
Happy Valley was on high alert after word of Penn State's most serious preseason injury in years trickled out Monday. Could this be how Paterno's Hall of Fame career finally comes to an end?
"I hope that toughness is something that develops over the years genetically," said son and quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, who called the setback a "small blip on the radar" of his father's plans to keep coaching.
The elder Paterno spent nearly two days in the hospital before checking out Tuesday. Major college football's all-time wins leader (401 victories entering his 46th season) said in a statement this week that he wanted to shift the attention back to his team.
There's no better position to look first then quarterback.
The two players who took most of the snaps last year are back jostling again for the starting nod. Sophomore Rob Bolden began the 2010 campaign as the starter before struggling and suffering a concussion in late October.
Junior Matt McGloin took over in early November and helped rejuvenate the offense down the stretch. But he finished with five interceptions in a 37-24 loss to Florida at the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1. Even still, it was too early to say after a handful of practices which candidate might be the early leader, Jay Paterno said this week.
But what might help McGloin, Bolden and the rest of the offense is the year of experience for both quarterbacks. Last August, Penn State was looking to replace two-year starter and All-Big Ten QB Daryll Clark.
This season, Bolden and McGloin can both draw on their experiences from last year's 7-6 campaign.
"We're already doing more than we did (at the same time) last year," Jay Paterno said. "One of the big focuses on the turnover game is getting more and not trying to give away as many."
Third-stringer Kevin Newsome, once a touted quarterback prospect himself, decided to leave the team last week. Jay Paterno had no comment on Newsome.
Whether it's McGloin or Bolden, the starter could have a potentially dangerous tandem of receiving targets in senior Derek Moye (eight touchdowns) and junior Justin Brown (one score). Five-foot-7 receiver Devon Smith could make up for running into Paterno this week by using his blazing speed to get into the end zone.
"On offense, from a baseline, we'll start with we had last year and build off that," Jay Paterno said when asked if the offense would differ depending on which quarterback started. "One of the things from last year is we got better as the year went on."
Career-leading rusher Evan Royster is now with the Washington Redskins, though the Nittany Lions still seem set in the backfield with promising sophomore Silas Redd and often-injured senior speedster Stephfon Green hoping to carry the load. Six-foot, 230-pound junior running back Brandon Beachum could also be a factor after sitting out 2010 with a right knee injury.
As usual in Happy Valley, questions remain about the offensive line. Three seniors return, though the Nittany Lions must replace standout three-year starter Stefen Wisniewski at right guard.
Defensively, seven starters return from a unit that often struggled, hamstrung by injuries and inexperience. The lineup had to be patched together in October and November with key cogs like ends Jack Crawford (right foot) and Eric Latimore (left wrist), and safety Nick Sukay (chest) out.
Penn State is already down one key player this year after end Pete Massaro (3.5 sacks) suffered a season-ending left injury in spring practice.
The good news is that it appears most of the other injured starters appear on track to return, which helps bolster a secondary with three seniors that helped the team finish second in the league in pass defense (181 yards per game).
On the other hand, many of those players were also on the field in the red zone, where the Nittany Lions allowed a league-worst 34 scores out of 37 opportunities (91 percent) including 26 touchdowns.
Paterno has turned up the intensity this August. The Nittany Lions are sweating it out more in practice compared to the last couple preseasons, said redshirt junior linebacker Michael Mauti, who headlines another potentially top-notch unit for Linebacker U.
"It's just been a little more intense, you can just feel a little more energy every day in practice," Mauti said. "I think Joe (Paterno) had a lot to do with it. He really set the tone, and I think he's going to continue to do that."
The season kicks off Sept. 3 with a visit from Indiana State.