STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - As Jack Crawford entered his teen years in London, basketball ranked as his first love. Growing at a rate that would get him to his current 6-foot-5, he dreamed of being the English version of LeBron James or Kobe Bryant.

But a few months after he came to the United States to play basketball at St. Augustine Prep in South Jersey, Crawford saw the 2006 BCS championship game between Southern Cal and Texas, and his focus began to change.

"It looked fun. It looked intense," Crawford said yesterday at Penn State's football media day. "Then I went to an Eagles preseason game, which I thought was huge.

"I liked watching how big it was over here and how crazy people are about football and just how exciting it is. Once I learned the rules, it became more exciting. My first year in high school, my sophomore year, I would go to football games and watch the team and think, 'I can do this.' From my junior year, I just decided to take it from there."

The switch took him from small forward to defensive end, to the attention of big-name colleges and finally, to the Nittany Lions, where Crawford is ticketed to take over the starting defensive end job occupied last year by Aaron Maybin, a first-round NFL draft pick.

Crawford may be the most athletic player on the Penn State defense, and packs a solid and chiseled 256 pounds on his 6-5 frame. He may not reach Maybin's 2008 stats of 12 sacks and 20 tackles for loss, but he has the raw tools of quickness, speed, and strength to be a capable successor, if not more.

To get to this point, however, his learning curve has had to be steep and swift.

This will be only his fourth season of organized football. Even after playing in every game last season as a true freshman, football class for Crawford still is in session.

"I'm still learning," he said. "My first game in high school, I think I lined up offside almost every play. I learned a lot from my mistakes in the high school games, but I still didn't know everything when I came here.

"I've still got so much to learn. I don't have much experience in general with the game, so I'm just trying to get better every day."

Joe Paterno, who said yesterday he was sure he had coached someone from London at some point during his four decades at Penn State, feels Crawford can be something special.

"He's got tremendous intensity," Paterno said. "He's got really good natural ability particularly for playing defensive end - he's a big, long-armed kid. He'll play at about 260. He can run. I think once he gets a little feel for the game, he'll be pretty darn good."

Paterno then smiled and added, "Even if he is from London."

Crawford played soccer, cricket, and rugby as a youth. He even tried boxing for a year but stopped around age 15 because it was "more of a lifestyle . . . there was no way I was going to stop playing basketball."

However, after Crawford came to this country, he was homesick and unhappy. He had planned to return to London until he met Peter D'Andrea at a basketball camp in South Jersey.

The two youths became close friends, and eventually D'Andrea's parents invited Crawford to live with them in Longport. Suddenly, the adjustment to a new country became much easier.

"They've meant a lot," Crawford said. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them because I wasn't very happy when I first came over. They took me in and treated me as one of their own. They're the nicest people I've ever met."

Crawford's main goals are to improve every day, read formations better, get to the football more quickly. It may not be as easy for him as playing basketball, but it's pretty good for someone who didn't ever envision himself doing this.

"I think to myself, 'I don't know how I ended up here,' " he said with a smile. "It's weird. I had dreams in London of being a basketball player, thinking about how I'm going to get to America.

"Somehow, I managed to make it to America playing basketball and now I'm here playing football. It's crazy."

Notes. Paterno said senior cornerback A.J. Wallace, projected as a starter, might not play "in a game or two" for cutting class and won't play at all if he cuts any more classes. "I think you've got to send a message," Paterno said. "When I'll play him will depend on what I hear from our academic advisers and find out if he's going to class and doing what he is supposed to do academically." . . . The coach didn't care that his team was ranked No. 8 in the preseason by USA Today. "What's it mean?" he asked. "Does it guarantee us anything? I don't pay any attention to it. It's good for the fans. Hopefully maybe it will sell some tickets."

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.