THE BIGGEST LOSER" is a television reality show about significantly overweight people who have made lifestyle changes in an effort to get smaller and, presumably, healthier.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno has long been a proponent of what might be described as the "Happy Valley Diet," relegating players who exceed the target weights JoePa has set for them to his spacious doghouse, where offenders can expect to log more time pumping iron in the weight room and running the Beaver Stadium steps, and less time loading up their trays at the training table.
In recent years, Paterno has banished to the bench or limited the playing time of such hefties as defensive linemen Phil Taylor and Brandon Ware, his rationale being that carrying around a dozen or more excessive pounds sapped their strength and limited their effectiveness, particularly in the fourth quarter of games whose outcomes had yet to be determined. Paterno was all over those guys like gravy on rice, if you will pardon the expression.
Critics of Paterno's disinclination to compromise his unyielding stance on weight might note that the run-stuffing Taylor transferred to Baylor and became this year's first-round draft choice (No. 21 overall) of the Cleveland Browns, who apparently didn't object to the 334 pounds he carried while earning All-Big 12 honors with the Bears.
And Ware, who was nearly 400 pounds when he arrived in State College (hence his nickname of "The Warehouse") in 2008 and seldom dipped below 335, also has moved on, to Eastern Arizona Junior College, although his departure is as much the result of nagging injuries and academic troubles as to an inability to pare down to a Paterno-mandated target weight.
Ware's departure from the program could prove detrimental; even though he was in on only two tackles in 2010, Paterno had praised him in the spring and even predicted that he could go on to play "8 or 9 years on Sunday," meaning in the NFL.
But policy is policy, and Paterno is concerned that the disappointing 7-6 record the Lions posted last season was at least partly attributable to too many players being too heavy and thus ill-prepared to remain effective in the late stages of games where conditioning increasingly became a factor. Result: The big bodies running through the Beaver Stadium tunnel for Saturday afternoon's season opener against Indiana State will be leaner, fitter and more durable than the 2010 models.
Or at least that's the hope. In 2010, Penn State registered just 16 sacks, less than half the 34 the Lions had the previous season. The Lions also allowed 165.6 yards per game rushing; they had not yielded more than 94 ypg on the ground from 2005 through '09.
Not that Indiana State, a Football Championship Subdivision school, is apt to put up much resistance to a defensive unit that figures to substitute freely once the game is in hand, the better to keep key performers healthy and rested for a visit by No. 2-ranked Alabama on Sept. 10.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson - who, as of Penn State's Media Day on Aug. 16 had lost 33 pounds, perhaps to provide incentive for his charges - said more manageable weights should yield big results where it counts, on the field.
"Coach [Paterno] went on a diet and it seems like a lot of guys jumped right in, too," Johnson said. "[Defensive tackle] Jordan Hill wanted to come down. He was 310, 312; I told him he'd be more effective at 290 to 295. He came in at 292, which is outstanding. He loves himself at that weight. He's playing with more confidence, he's playing faster, his conditioning is much improved. He's just a different cat.
"Devon Still [the other first-unit DT] came down from 315 to 300. Same thing. I'm down 33. I want to be down 50, but let's see what happens."
Nor are Johnson's guys the only ones lightening up, or, in some cases, bulking up.
"Every position coach gave his guys a target weight to report in at," Johnson noted. "Every player came in at or under his target weight. In a few cases, the guys who needed to gain weight gained weight."
Not that there is a direct correlation, but Johnson wondered if too much weight being carried by certain players contributed to the nagging injuries that also hampered their productivity.
"We definitely need to boost our sack total," Johnson said, although he noted that the offensive philosophies of some opponents also is a factor in fewer quarterback takedowns.
"There were more five-step drops a few years ago," he continued. "Now, with so many teams operating out of the spread to one degree or another, you're seeing more three-step drops with the quarterback getting the ball out quickly. To counteract that, you need pass-rushers who get there faster.