LB Lee readies for last home game at Penn State
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP)Penn State's recruiting class of 2005 is hailed in Happy Valley as a group of players who helped bring the storied program back from football purgatory to national relevance.
So don't be surprised if the biggest cheers on Saturday for the No. 19 Nittany Lions' final home game of the season are reserved for linebacker Sean Lee.
The last player on the roster who played in the Orange Bowl that capped the school's magical '05 ride will run out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel for the last time before the Nittany Lions (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) host Indiana (4-6, 1-5).
"It's definitely going to be emotional. So much time playing in front of our fans," said Lee, a fifth-year senior. "It's definitely going to be tough for me and a lot of the older guys."
Many other notable names from Lee's recruiting class are gone.
The top recruits, receiver Derrick Williams and cornerback Justin King, are in the NFL. Two of the most touted prospects in the country, their decisions to sign with Penn State at a time when the school was coming off a string of four losing seasons in five years was considered by recruiting pundits to be a coup for coach Joe Paterno.
King left after his junior season. Williams and safety Anthony Scirrotto - Lee's former roommate - stuck around as seniors in 2008, helping to guide Penn State to its second Big Ten title and BCS bowl in four years.
Lee would have left with them if not for a right knee injury in 2008 spring practice that forced him to take a redshirt year. An All-American candidate, Lee was left to watch the Rose Bowl from the sidelines, cheering on as an unofficial coach.
It was quite the opposite experience from 2005, when Lee was thrust into the lineup as a freshman in the Orange Bowl after linebacker Paul Posluszny left the game with a knee injury.
"We were coming into a situation where Penn State hadn't been winning for a few years. We came in not knowing what kind of season we would have," Lee said. "That whole year was very special. We kind of exploded back on to the scene."
Quarterback Michael Robinson, left tackle Levi Brown and Posluszny helped provide leadership on a squad eager to prove it could compete again nationally.
"They gave us a blueprint in how college football is supposed to be played," said senior end Jerome Hayes, who was part of Lee's freshman class but redshirted in 2005. "We really had a first-row seat of how to do things the right way. We were able to carry it on the next four years."
Other recruits from that class who redshirted with Hayes are left tackle Dennis Landolt and tight end Mickey Shuler, both key players now.
Quarterback Daryll Clark was recruited in 2004, but spent a year in prep school and didn't start his Penn State career until 2006.
Of the current seniors, Hayes might have the most inspirational story after having to rebound from two season-ending injuries - one to the right knee in 2007, another to the left knee the following year - to gain a starting job this season.
Hayes has slowly built up his stamina to the point that he no longer worries about his health. It showed last week against Ohio State, when he tried to chase down - and nearly caught - speedy quarterback Terrelle Pryor on a scramble to the sideline.
It may not be Hayes' last year, though. He's considering applying for a sixth year of eligibility because the injuries deprived him of so much playing time.
The decision won't come until the bowl break so, mentally, Hayes is preparing for Saturday to be his last game in front of the home fans.
"It doesn't really hit you until they call your name and you're running out of the tunnel," Hayes said.
Lee knows how Hayes feels when it comes to health problems. The linebacker also sprained his left knee three weeks into this season, forcing him to sit out three games.
He was playing well before the latest injury, displaying the instincts and athleticism that made him an All-American candidate. He has gradually built up his confidence since coming back a month ago, adjusting to playing with a brace.
Penn State is 48-13 since 2005, the ninth-best record in the country during that period, with two conference crowns.
But Lee also knows he has come up a little short at Penn State, a pressure cooker of a program where many fans expect a perennial national title contender.
"Will we have accomplished the ultimate goal of winning a national title? No," Lee said. "I know every game we've played our hearts out, and for me, that's successful."