Football practice has just begun -- and so has the most critical behind-the-scenes month in recent Penn State history.

Four weeks for this program to continue its gradual implosion.

Four weeks for wagons to be circled, for key members to pull things together.

Granted, probably nothing will convince the masses that Joe Paterno didn't appear defensive and out-of-touch during the his recent ESPN "Outside the Lines" interview. Or that there aren't far too many distractions among his players. Or that the defensive line won't be nearly as imposing without Chris Baker and Phil Taylor, who have been dismissed from the team.

And yet this ongoing uproar doesn't necessarily have to bring down the entire season, or even the head coach.

It doesn't have to.

To save things? That will be the job of the players themselves -- particularly the ones who may form the team's best group of leaders in years.

And those leaders must step up now. Not at the beginning of September. Not before the first big game. Not after the first loss.

That's how precarious things are getting in State College.

To save things, guys like linemen A.Q. Shipley and Rich Ohrnberger - and even injured linebacker Sean Lee - must not hesitate to get in teammates' faces, do a little locker room enforcing, so to speak.

New quarterbacks Daryll Clark and Pat Devlin - no matter who becomes the starter - must be able to yank facemasks when someone isn't giving the required effort.


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And receiver Derrick Williams, a monotone, say-nothing guy to the media, must show his emotional, inspirational side to teammates even more, dragging the best out of everyone.

Short leashes are a must from the first day. And the players must police themselves, not only for the good of the team, but also for the good of the coaching staff and the university.

Only they can truly make this better.

Paterno can't, really. His perception already is damaged for his lack of recruiting, for working more and more from home and for not instilling the same kind of respect and fear among his player as he did years ago.

He hurt his cause further with his performance on the ESPN "OTL" show. He appeared defiant, out-of-touch and on a completely different page than the university president.

No, this will come down to the players.

And, of course, there are some doubts with that. So far, too many have shown that they haven't learned from their transgressions and second chances.

That must be overcome quickly, though, because the difference between a 10-2 regular season and another disappointing 8-4 mark - or worse - will begin to be molded from their behind-the-scenes work over the next month.

Paterno's career also could hang in the balance. University officials could try to force him to retire after this fall if his players continue to get arrested and continue to produce mediocre results on the field.

This comes down to the players, the leaders.

The offensive line does appear to have its best character and ability since the 1994 group. The quarterbacks, though untested, seem to have the strong personality and leadership potential of a Michael Robinson. And the defensive line, even without standouts Baker and Taylor, still has the kind of talent to be one of the best in the league.

There are enough no-nonsense players to bring a focus and calm to the preseason and beyond, to help funnel all of this talent into meaningful victories in the fall.

And it will take more than key lead-by-example types such as receivers Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler to lock this team down and then lift it up.

The Shipleys and Ohrnbergers may well have to use a show of force and the right words to make this team understand what it can achieve, how it must be done and how important it all is.

Not only does a season depend it. What is left of a legend's career may, as well, too.

It is a most important August, indeed.

Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the Daily Record/Sunday News. Reach him at 771-2104 or fbodani@ydr.com.