Friday, October 26, 2007

Linebacker class in session when No. 1 Ohio State visits No. 24 Penn State

AP Sports Writer

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) - High school linebackers aspiring to play at the next level might want to watch top-ranked Ohio State and No. 24 Penn State play Saturday night.

Two of college football's best middle linebackers, the Buckeyes' James Laurinaitis and the Nittany Lions' Dan Connor, figure to put on a clinic in leading two of the nation's best defenses.

Even Penn State coach Joe Paterno is getting caught up in the hype.

``You will probably see four or five of the best linebackers in the country at the same time,'' Paterno said. ``I don't mean at the same time ... They will be there at one time or another.''

High praise from a man who has coached the likes of Paul Posluszny, Shane Conlan and Jack Ham at Penn State (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten).

Both Laurinaitis and Connor have stellar supporting casts.

Standout junior Sean Lee is waiting in the wings to become Happy Valley's next linebacking headliner. With a team-leading 79 tackles, Lee has played just as well as Connor, while Tyrell Sales, Josh Hull and redshirt freshman Navarro Bowman have been solid in sharing time at the other outside position.

For Ohio State (8-0, 4-0), Marcus Freeman and Larry Grant have been pretty good starting outside for a defense that has allowed just four touchdowns all year. Freeman, a senior, is second on the squad with 6 1/2 tackles for a loss.

They may all be overshadowed by the mighty matchup of middle linebackers. Laurinaitis and Connor are both semifinalists for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation's top linebacker.

Watching Connor on film reminds Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel of his own star.

``In their defense, philosophically, that's the guy that can go sideline to sideline,'' Tressel said. ``Connor's a great linebacker, like Laurinaitis.''

They've followed somewhat similar paths into the spotlight.

Both saw extensive action as freshmen and spent part of their careers playing next to All-Americans: Connor learned from Posluszny, and Laurinaitis overlapped for a season with standout A.J. Hawk.

Laurinaitis took over at middle linebacker as a sophomore and won the Nagurski Award as the nation's best defensive player. Connor moved to the middle this season after spending most of his collegiate career outside, where last season he was named a second-team All-American.

Both are team captains, considered ``lead-by-example'' guys rather than vocal leaders.

Their resumes include interesting morsels of off-the-field information that stand out to those unfamiliar with their careers.

Laurinaitis grew up in a household that featured a professional wrestler idolized by many of his grade-school buddies. His father, Joe, donned tights and face paint in assuming the persona of Animal as part of the tag team called the Road Warriors, or Legion of Doom.

Connor's tidbit traces back to a stint in Paterno's infamous doghouse in 2005, after the linebacker allegedly made prank phone calls to an unsuspecting retired assistant coach close to JoePa. Connor sat out the first three games before starting the last seven games that season, and Paterno has said Connor has been a model citizen ever since.

Connor is a big reason why the Nittany Lions are second-best in the Big Ten in scoring defense (15 points per game) and rush defense (79.8 yards). Only the Laurinaitis-led Buckeyes are better in conference, leading the nation in scoring (7.9 points) and second against the rush (62.4 yards).

``You'd better get Connor blocked if you want to move the chains,'' Tressel said.

It sounds a lot like how Paterno feels about Laurinaitis and his ability to range sideline-to-sideline to make plays.

``He is a fine football player,'' Paterno said. ``He is very smart, very alert, a very aggressive football player and loves to play and can change directions and do all the things that you like to see in a linebacker.''

If Laurinaitis keeps this up, NFL scouts may be eager to see the junior leave school a year early to join Connor, a senior, in next year's draft.

Connor doesn't view this weekend's game as a competition with his Ohio State counterpart to be the best linebacker or the higher draft pick.

``It's more neat to see a guy like him play,'' he said. ``It's more of a neat experience, of watching good linebacker play.''