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Penn State Spring Game: Competition begins to replace Larry Johnson

Sunday, April 27, 2003

By Ray Fittipaldo, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK -- So just who is going to replace Larry Johnson as Penn State's tailback? At this point, your guess is as good as Coach Joe Paterno's.

Ernie Terrell hauls in a pass against Alan Zemaitis in Penn State's spring game yesterday. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)


Related article: Paterno gets bothered by questions

At his news conference before yesterday's Blue-White Game, Paterno said he could not name a starter at tailback.

"Honest to goodness, I don't know. I could not tell you who would be the starting tailback. I haven't really thought about it. We'll play today. We'll go through preseason practice. Then we'll determine what we're going to do," he said.

"Why think about it now? What good does it do to think about it right now? I've got 25 practices in the preseason before we have to sit down and make that decision. I've got a lot of other things on my mind. I think we have kids who eventually might be good enough. Right now, I would not tell you we have a tailback. We have a lot of tailbacks."

There are a handful of candidates who are vying for the job. None has any significant college experience. Junior Mike Gasparato has the most with 158 yards on 32 carries last season as Johnson's chief backup. Junior Pete Gilmore (27 yards on seven carries), sophomore Tim Shaw (59 yards on 14 carries) and freshman Donnie Johnson are challenging for playing time as well.

They will attempt to replace Larry Johnson, who became the first Penn State back to rush for 2,000 yards last season.

"There might not be a clear-cut No. 1 back this year," said Gasparato, who led all rushers with 62 yards on 12 carries yesterday as the Blue team beat the White team, 23-7. "It's hard to tell. We'll go through two-a-days and see how we progress.

"If you look at the history of Penn State, you usually have some big shoes to fill at tailback. Larry was great. Someone has to do it. We just have to get the job done. Larry raised the standard. Now, we're all striving to reach his standard."

Donnie Johnson led the White team with 34 yards on seven carries. Freshman Chris Wilson had 26 yards. Shaw had 6 yards on three carries and did not play much after his ankle was sprained. Gilmore had minus-1 yard on two carries and did not play after the second series.

"I'm very open to the competition," Shaw said. "I feel like we have a lot of guys who can do things this summer to earn the job. I think it will take a few games, see who can handle it under pressure, who can stay healthy."

The wild card in the running back derby is incoming freshman Austin Scott, who led Parkland High School to the PIAA Class AAAA championship. He will participate in summer camp and there is speculation that he could wind up being the No. 1 back as soon as the third or fourth game of the season.

"I've heard a lot about him," Gasparato said. "I've seen him play. We're all hyped coming out of high school. But if he can come in here and help out, more power to him. It doesn't matter. We're all about winning games here."

Paterno could decide to use two or three backs and utilize their strengths. Gasparato is good coming out of the backfield and catching passes. Donnie Johnson is quick to the hole. And Shaw is a hard and determined runner.

"There's no animosity with any of us," Gasparato said. "We're all trying to get better. We all have big shoes to fill. We all know what we have to do this summer, just get better."

NOTES -- WR Kinta Palmer scored on touchdown passes of 57 and 1 yards. ... Nolan McReady scored the other touchdown for the Blue Team on a 60-yard interception return. ... QB Mike Robinson scored the only touchdown for the White team on a 1-yard run. ... Starting tackle Chris McKelvy's right knee was sprained in the first quarter and he did not return. The injury is not believed to be serious. ... OL Dave Dietrich (knee), WR Josh Hannum (ankle), DB Ben Lago (knee), OL Lee Lispi (back), RB BranDon Snow (knee) and DB Yaacov Yisrael (knee) did not play. ... OL Tyler Reed (Thomas Jefferson) completed spring drills as the starting right guard. ... DL Levi Brown could be moved to offensive line. ... Estimated attendance was 26,000 on a rainy afternoon.


Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.

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