Penn State's Paterno gives Holmberg 'thumbs up' at linebacker Ex-Navy receiver receptive to switch COLLEGES


Rob Holmberg had speed that dazzled but two faulty thumbs that ached.

So Joe Paterno, who has been known to turn quarterbacks into linebackers at the drop of a snap, made the quick-stepping wide receiver his latest linebacking protege.

This was last March, just before Penn State started spring practice. Holmberg learned of his designation when Paterno announced it at a team meeting. Only problem was, nobody had told him beforehand.

"I was putting on weight during the winter workouts," Holmberg said, "and [defensive coordinator] Jerry Sandusky was joking about moving me to linebacker. Joe assumed Jerry had talked to me seriously about it [when the announcement was made]."

There is no shame in playing linebacker at Penn State, known as "Linebacker U," which developed All-Americans such as Jack Ham, Charlie Zapiec, Shane Conlan and Dennis Onkotz.

Move from receiver to linebacker? No problem, Holmberg said, once he had the chance to think about it.

"I have ligament damage in my thumb," he said. "It's not bad enough to operate. But from my first game on, I had to have my thumbs taped up. The right one is worse. I'm not even sure the cause of it. Maybe from catching the ball."

His speed for the 40 yards registers in the 4.5-second range. But a receiver who aches whenever he catches the ball is a receiver without much of a future.

Last Saturday, Holmberg marked his debut as an outside linebacker in the Nittany Lions' 38-20 drilling of Minnesota. He intercepted a pass and, showing that 4.5 speed, returned it 36 yards. He stepped out of bounds 6 yards short of his first Penn State touchdown. He also made five tackles and batted down two passes.

"For the first game he played linebacker in college, he did an outstanding job," Paterno said.

Certainly not bad for a guy whose college career has been one long transition. After playing quarterback and cornerback at Mount Pleasant (Pa.) Area High, Holmberg went to the Naval Academy and was a third wide receiver in George Chaump's offense in 1990.

He caught 10 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns for the Midshipmen. But he transferred after that sophomore season because he no longer was enamored of the idea of a military career.

Leaving Annapolis was not an easy choice, he said.

"I had decided at Christmastime in my sophomore year to stay," Holmberg said. "Then I went home, talked to family and friends, and decided the best thing was to leave. A career in the military isn't what I wanted.

"It didn't have anything to do with the school. While I was there, it was almost as if you failed if you left there. I don't think anybody would understand [the mentality] unless you go there."

Getting from Navy to Penn State wasn't easy, either, although Happy Valley was his first choice.

Initially, Paterno had no grant available, so Holmberg looked around. There were grants available at Syracuse, Rutgers and Ohio State.

But Holmberg still chose State College, which is 125 miles from his home in the Pittsburgh suburbs, and got his grant in his second semester.

After sitting out the 1991 season, he played in four games last year for the Lions and caught one pass.

In Holmberg's growing 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame, Paterno saw the makings of a linebacker.

And he had a shortage at the position, anyway.

"I don't know that he was out of place at wide receiver," Paterno said. "He has a smooth, nice stride and can run well. But he does not catch the ball well. He doesn't have great hands. We had other people who could play wide-out.

"He has the instincts to play linebacker, and he'll get better if he stays healthy. He's a tough competitor. He can accelerate to the ball. He can get fooled and still get there," Paterno said.

Holmberg, up to 225 pounds, acknowledges he is still learning the position. But he doesn't regret the switch.

"It's been a very positive move for me," he said.

"It's a lot of fun. On offense, and at wide receiver, there's a lot more pressure. On defense, you can relax and react. You don't have to think as much."

Then there's the tradition of playing linebacker under Paterno.

"We don't talk about that among ourselves," Holmberg said. "But I'll be proud one day to say I was a linebacker at Penn State."

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