UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The difference in Penn State quarterback Kevin Thompson can't be seen, at least not yet. Joe Paterno has been closing practices here for most, if not all, of his 33 seasons as coach and now coaching legend.
Those outside the program won't get their first sustained look of the more experienced, more confident Thompson until tomorrow's season-opening Pigskin Classic between the third-ranked Nittany Lions and fourth-ranked Arizona Wildcats at Beaver Stadium.
For now, there are only snippets from the spring game and sound bites at 6 and 11.
"I've had a year's experience," Thompson, a fifth-year senior from Gaithersburg, said at Media Day earlier this month. "I've played in 12 or 13 games, not just three or four. I took a lot of hits, which is something I needed to get to this position."
Thompson was talking about the forearm shivers and blindside tackles he received from opposing teams, particularly during last season's one-sided road defeats to Ohio State (28-9), Michigan (27-0) and Wisconsin (24-3).
He could have been talking about the verbal shots he took from the fans in not-so-happy Happy Valley and from the statewide media during what was a deceptively successful 9-3 season for Penn State.
Whether or not he will admit to it, Thompson is still feeling the heat.
At 6 feet 5 and 221 pounds, he has the size needed to play the position these days. But he must improve on his own mediocre passing stats that included throwing more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (six) and fend off the challenge of fast-rising fourth-year junior Rashard Casey.
Asked about the pressure he faces to hold onto the starting job, Thompson said: "I'm sure there is some, but everyone has to compete for a job. This one is a little more publicized than the others."
If Thompson finds himself looking over his shoulder pads, it's not without reason.
Though his teammates voted Thompson one of two co-captains, Paterno didn't announce until Wednesday that Thompson had practiced well enough to earn the start in the nationally televised game. Even then, Paterno said he would use Casey against the Wildcats.
"Casey is going to play," Paterno said earlier this week. "When and how I'm going to play him I don't know. These things aren't as precise as some folks think. We play a lot of it by the seat of our pants."
It doesn't seem to faze Thompson. After an almost too-perfect career at Damascus High School that included successive state titles as a junior and senior, it has been a long and often difficult road for Thompson at Penn State.
As a redshirt sophomore, he broke a finger on his passing hand early in the season. It hardly mattered, because Thompson didn't throw a pass in the three games in which he played.
Two years ago, he backed up Mike McQueary, completing nine of 27 passes for 103 yards. That he threw nary a touchdown pass nor an interception is an indication of the way he was used.
Then came last year.
He was booed at home during the season. He was even booed when his name was announced at a basketball game last winter.
"An emotional roller coaster," he said of a season in which he completed 121 of 226 passes for 1,691 yards. "I certainly experienced a lot of highs and lows."
The highs were mostly against the lowly ranked: passing 19 of 26 for 269 yards and a touchdown in a 27-0 rout of Illinois, throwing a 60-yard touchdown pass to Chafie Fields against Pitt and a 65-yarder for a score against Minnesota.
Conversely, the lows came in the losses to Top 25 teams: 11 of 20 for 106 yards and an interception to top-ranked Ohio State, eight of 21 for 94 yards and two interceptions against No. 22 Michigan and 10 of 18 for 88 yards against 13th-ranked Wisconsin.
"He did some very good things," said senior center Eric Cole. "Obviously he made some mistakes, but we all did. He took the brunt of the criticism, but that sort of comes with the territory."
Thompson is aware of all the preseason hype surrounding Penn State, which has been ranked as high as No. 1 in several publications on the strength of its defense.
He knows he is perceived more as a question mark than an answer and views silencing the skeptics as a challenge.
"I didn't feel tentative at all last season, despite what some people might have said," he said. "It had to do with not having enough experience."
Thompson will add to that experience against Arizona, which after finishing 12-1 last season has its own national championship hopes riding on tomorrow's outcome.
There will be a Sept. 18 trip to Miami and visits from Ohio State and Michigan during the Big Ten season.
"I think we always had confidence in Kevin," said sophomore tailback Eric McCoo. "He's working to get better, just like the rest of us."
Pub Date: 8/27/99