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April 18, 2007Penn State tailback Austin Scott has every reason to believe he can lead his team to a championship after missing an entire season.
After all, he's done it before.
Scott sat out his junior season in high school with a torn patella tendon before rushing for a state-record 3,853 yards and 53 touchdowns the following year to lead Parkland High School to the Class AAAA Pennsylvania state title.
Now the former four-star prospect is on the comeback trail again after missing the entire 2006 campaign with knee and ankle problems. Scott appears intent on ending his injury-riddled college career in championship form.
"If there's anyone that can do it, it's him," former Parkland coach Rob Melosky said.
Scott certainly feels he can do it.
The former Orange Bowl star has set personal goals of earning All-America and first-team all-Big Ten honors, even though he never has matched his freshman-year total of 436 rushing yards. Scott also believes he can help the Nittany Lions win a Big Ten and national title.
"We definitely feel we can legitimately do both," Scott said.
He's not alone.
Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli boldly talked about making a run at the 2007 national championship immediately after a 20-10 Outback Bowl victory over Tennessee. The Nittany Lions have such sky-high hopes that they're shouting "Big Ten champions!" and "National champions!" as they break huddles and finish practices.
Scott said he opted to return to Penn State for a fifth season mainly because he didn't want to leave college without winning a national championship.
He was healthy enough to return at some point last fall to back up Tony Hunt, who led Penn State with 1,386 rushing yards. He instead redshirted and spent the rest of the year working as Penn State's scout-team running back.
Scott said he made his decision after Penn State's chance of contending for a 2006 national title already had ended with a 41-17 loss to Notre Dame.
"I just weighed the pros and cons," Scott said. "Anthony would be a senior. The (offensive) line would have another year under their belts. It was a better situation for us to win a national championship."
Scott appeared on the verge of stardom when he started four games as a true freshman, but he hasn't built on that momentum. Scott backed up Hunt the next two seasons and didn't play at all last year after injuring his left knee in spring practice and hurting his ankle in the preseason.
He stepped in for an injured Hunt and rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns in an Orange Bowl victory over Florida State two years ago, but that game represents the highlight in a career that has been marred by injuries and inconsistency.
Scott knows this is his last chance to change the perception that he hasn't lived up to expectations.
"When it's all over, I want to make sure I'm never able to look back and say, 'I wish I did this,' or 'If only I'd done that,' '' Scott said.
Scott wouldn't be the first Penn State running back to put together a huge senior season after spending most of his career in a backup role.
In his lone season as a starter five years ago, Larry Johnson set a school single-season rushing record by gaining 2,087 yards. Johnson averaged 7.7 yards per carry that year and finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
"I definitely would like to shoot for a Larry Johnson-type of year," Scott said. "That's definitely motivation."
Penn State fans would be overjoyed if he simply matched the success Hunt enjoyed last season.
Hunt emerged as one of the nation's most consistent rushers by gaining at least 130 yards in eight of his last 11 games. Scott's reliance on speed and shiftiness represents a major change from Hunt's physical running style.
Scott has addressed those concerns by making sure he will pack a bigger punch this fall. Listed at 209 pounds in last season's media guide, Scott says he now weighs 220 and insists the extra weight hasn't reduced his speed.
His teammates have noticed the change.
"He hasn't played as much as Tony did the past years or whatever," Morelli said, "but I think Austin's going to be a great running back."
Scott won the admiration of coaches and teammates last season for the way he handled adversity.
Many former blue-chip prospects would have griped about having to work with the scout team. Scott embraced the opportunity and took pride in compliments from coaches who raved over his ability to help prepare the defense each week.
"He did a great job on the (scout) team last year when we decided to keep him out," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "He's got to do it this year for himself, and I think he will. He's worked very hard in the winter program. I think he'll be OK.''
Scott said the scout-team experience helped make him a better player because he stopped running timidly and instead made sure nothing held him back.
He has taken a similar attitude in his weight training.
"There's a point in your workout where the pain starts to take over," Scott said. "You have to be able to recognize the pain, realize what it is, keep going for it and not retreat. You fight toward it. You know the pain is making you better. A few years ago, I'd give in to it. Now it's important for me to continue, whether it's in the weight room or in conditioning and running."
If he can combine that kind of mental toughness with the physical ability that helped make him so highly touted in the first place, Scott will close his college career with more rewards than regrets.
"He's blessed with some God-given ability that he had a chance to showcase a little bit his freshman year," Melosky said. "And that Orange Bowl definitely showed he's capable of doing it against a top-notch, quality team. He realizes this is his last chance to do it, and he can make it happen."
Melosky already has seen Scott make the most of a senior season.
The Penn State tailback plans to make sure history repeats itself.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.