Penn State's Lee expects no drop-off after ACL

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's impossible to minimize what Penn State has lost at key positions on both sides of the ball.

But think about what the Nittany Lions could regain at linebacker.

  • 239 career tackles, including 138 as a junior in 2007

  • 18.5 tackles for loss and 9 sacks, including 5.5 in 2006

  • 26 consecutive games started between 2006-07

  • Five fumble recoveries and two interceptions

There's only one looming question: Will Sean Lee be the same player?

If he is, Penn State will reclaim one of the nation's best linebackers, a Bednarik Award candidate who can lead a defense that loses seven starters after finishing eighth nationally in yards allowed (280.1 ypg), points allowed (14.4 ppg) and rush yards allowed (93.2 ypg) last season. But Lee hasn't played a down since the 2007 Alamo Bowl, where he earned defensive player of the game honors, and comes off surgery to repair a torn right ACL sustained on a noncontact play last spring.

"The only thing I worried about was, 'Will my knee hurt me? Will I feel like I don't have explosion off the knee?'" Lee said. "And the knee felt great, so I really feel if I continue to rep and work hard, I'll be the same player, if not better.

"I've tried to be really disciplined along this rehab so I can come back a better player."

Lee tore the ligament on April 11, 2008, and underwent surgery April 28 before beginning the long rehab process.

Before the mishap, Lee had been projected as a leading candidate for the Bednarik Award, claimed by his Penn State linebacker predecessors Dan Connor (2007) and Paul Posluszny (2005, 2006) in the previous three seasons. Instead, he spent practice time in the training room and games on the sideline, serving as an honorary captain.

Lee took a positive approach to the situation and found benefits in his season offstage.

"Reading pass routes and trying to dissect plays, I feel a little bit quicker mentally now," he said. "Because last year, that's all I did, try to study other teams, study offense during practice. I tried to take every opportunity I had to better myself."

Lee's rehab ended after the Rose Bowl, and he went through winter workouts with his teammates at full speed. The winter allowed Lee to regain full trust in the knee, which tore when he made a cut trying to blitz quarterback Daryll Clark.

The 6-foot-2, 236-pound senior will be held out of full-contact drills and scrimmages this spring, but he'll do everything else. Team doctor Wayne Sebastianelli recently checked Lee's knee and "said it felt great."

"It's just nice being back playing football," Lee said. "I've been looking forward to this. Maybe if [the knee] would hurt, I would be hesitant, but it feels really good."

Lee's return boosts a linebacking corps that should be the best in the Big Ten this fall. He joins outside linebacker Navorro Bowman, a first-team All-Big Ten honoree who recorded 16.5 tackles for loss last fall.

"Sean's been great," Lions head coach Joe Paterno said. "He's one of the best kids I've ever coached and I don't mean just out on the field. He's out there coaching kids. He's done everything so far.

With significant personnel losses in the secondary and at defensive end, the linebackers will need to carry the unit at times this fall. There has been some talk that Penn State could switch to a 3-4 alignment, and Lee said the coaches will "experiment a bit" with different defensive sets this spring. Lee said he's comfortable playing both inside and outside at linebacker.

Team captains will be selected at the end of the spring, and it's a good bet Lee will be among the group. He's already mentoring young linebackers like Chris Colasanti and Michael Mauti and looks forward to seeing players like Drew Astorino, A.J. Wallace, Kevion Latham and Eric Latimore compete for starting jobs elsewhere on defense.

"We want to be the same team we were last year, we want to try to play for a national championship," Lee said. "But that's easier said than done. We know how hard we need to work, we know what it takes. I'd be surprised if we weren't competing at a high level and be close if not better than the team we were last year."