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Friday, October 30, 2009

The Nittany Line: Paterno sold Poti on life in Happy Valley

THERE ARE TIMES, Ako Poti admits, when he gets just a bit homesick for the familiar customs, food and faces he left behind.

Penn State's senior starting right tackle from Daly City, Calif., is of Samoan descent and, he doesn't mind telling you, there isn't much of a Polynesian community in State College. In fact, he might comprise it all by himself.

There also is the little matter of him being a junior college transfer, a species of Nittany Lion that is almost as rare. The only other such player on the roster is his main competitor for his starting spot, Nerraw McCormack, although McCormack is from the Bronx and presumably more on the same wave length with Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who even in his 60th season in Happy Valley doesn't bother much to conceal his Brooklyn roots. In any case, Poti and McCormack are the first juco transfers at Penn State since wide receiver Mike Alexander ran his last pass pattern in 1987.

The 6-3, 305-pound Poti could have gone to one of those Western Athletic Conference or Mountain West Conference schools - like, for instance, Utah, where his father, Issako Poti, played football from 1983 to '87 - and snuggled into the warm embrace of teammates of similar background, tastes and appearance.

Every now and then, when he watches Utah or BYU play on television, Poti is reminded of the choice he faced in December 2006.

"Seeing all the Samoans and Polynesians on TV, I think, 'I could have been with them, my people,' " said Poti, who will make his fourth consecutive start tomorrow when No. 12 Penn State (7-1, 3-1 Big 10) takes on Northwestern (5-3, 2-2) in Evanston, Ill. "But I grew up with Samoans, played with and against them. I kind of wanted to get out and try to expand beyond what the typical Samoan [football player] does, going right into a program that has a lot of people just like himself. I wanted to break away a little bit."

He broke away to a land where the nearest palm tree is a photo in a travel brochure, to a place where the scenery is pretty and pastoral but sometimes covered in white. It doesn't snow in Samoa and hardly ever in San Francisco, where Poti was an All-America road-grader at City College of San Francisco. The idea of experiencing something new lost some of its allure when Poti, who enrolled at Penn State in January 2007, stepped out into the chilly air a few times.

"I remember calling my mother," Poti recalled. "I said, 'Mom, I think I need a scarf. I never used a scarf in my life, but I think I really need one now.' "

Poti and McCormack might be described as Nits of necessity. First-round NFL draft choice Levi Brown and guard Robert Price played their last game for Penn State in the Outback Bowl to conclude the 2006 season, and Chris Auletta opted to graduate instead of returning for a fifth year in the program. Compounding the problem was the fact that two young offensive line prospects, Greg Harrison and Wyatt Bowman, quit the team because of nagging injuries.

Offensive linemen thus were at a premium in the recruiting class of 2007. Penn State signed eight large bodies to plug the gaps (three have since transferred to other schools or switched to different positions), including Poti and McCormack. The pitch to Poti was delivered by assistant coach Brian Norwood, now the defensive coordinator at Baylor, a University of Hawaii graduate who been on the staffs at Arizona and Texas Tech and still had contacts with West Coast junior colleges.

Poti figured he had a chance to play immediately, but what sold him was his first meeting with Paterno.

"Just hearing him say, 'I don't want you if you're not a good student,' kind of made Penn State look a whole lot better to me," Poti said.

Poti is a good student, in the classroom and on the practice field, although the revolving door at right tackle didn't stop until DeOn'tae Pannell and McCormack were injured and he got his shot in the Nits' home game against Eastern Illinois on Oct. 10.

"It was [offensive line coach Bill] Kenney who told me," Poti said. "I was walking into a breakdown meeting before practice and he said, 'Hey, Ako, you're first team today, and this week,' " Poti said. "I wasn't overly excited. My feeling was that it was time for me to get down to it, to show everybody that I can play."

He's done that.

"What I really like about Ako is when he makes a mistake, he will apologize to us in the huddle," quarterback Daryll Clark said. "Then on the next play, he'll go out and put somebody right on their behind. You got to like a guy like that."

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