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Wham, Bam, Super Sam
Craig Neff
December 22, 1986
Penn State's Shane Conlan, a quiet fellow known to his teammates as Super Sam, is the latest—some say the greatest—linebacker turned out by Linebacker U
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December 22, 1986

Wham, Bam, Super Sam

Penn State's Shane Conlan, a quiet fellow known to his teammates as Super Sam, is the latest—some say the greatest—linebacker turned out by Linebacker U

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Welcome, students of psychology. Today, another linebacker. Violent. Lives, breathes football. Derives most pleasure from, ahem, "just really laying into somebody." What's that? There's a bolt rattling around in your Corvette? Sorry, we covered Bosworth last semester. And, of course, you just learned about Mira.

Now then. There are two Shane Conlans to discuss here. Two? That's right. The off-the-field Conlan—affectionately known to his Penn State teammates as Jughead—is 6'3", 225 pounds of jawline, warm heart and aw-shucks grins. He is college football's official square knot. Earns good grades, too—he's really no Jughead at all. Most emphatically, he's no Boz. That's like linebackanalia versus linebackalaureate. The out-of-uniform Conlan is a small-town boy who loves Springsteen and uses expressions such as "really nice" and "so great." He has no jewelry hanging from his ears. Beneath that Beaver Cleaver haircut, however, lurks a second Shane Conlan, an impatient, hyper-aggressive one known to his teammates as Super Sam. Super Sam is nearly as mad as Boz. He emerges when the 22-year-old Conlan, a fifth-year senior, takes the field at outside ("Sam") linebacker. "Sometimes I lose my mind out there," admits Conlan.

This Conlan is a two-time All-America with 4.55 speed, a 34-inch vertical leap and no off switch. He may be the best linebacker the Nittany Lions have ever put on the field. "We've never asked a linebacker to do as many things as we've asked him to do," says Penn State coach Joe Paterno. "We play him inside, we play him outside, we use him on pass defense. He's the same kind of athlete Jack Ham was—intelligent, intense, consistent."

"He's better than I was," says Ham, the ex-Steeler turned businessman and TV commentator.

Conlan is a defensive swashbuckler, roaming the gridiron with his uniform jersey knotted in back, kerchief-style. "I like the feeling of it being tight, not all loose and flapping around," he says of his shirt. "If it isn't tight enough it drives me nuts."

Conlan's sleeves are tied up too, transforming his arms into displays of straining biceps. "You know, into guns," he says. Pow-pow-pow! Conlan's 274 career tackles rank him second, with John Skorupan, in Penn State history behind Greg Buttle (343). "There's nothing I hate more than missing a tackle," he says. "It's like popping up in baseball. I can't stand it."

Penn State has installed several defenses just to take advantage of Conlan's abilities. Most frequently used is the Bubble, which was introduced in last January's 25-10 Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma. To put it in simple terms, Conlan is the bubble. Sometimes he floats along, following the ball; other times he attaches himself to a particular back the entire game. The bubble defense never looks the same, but it usually works. Against Oklahoma, Conlan isolated on Sooner quarterback Jamelle Holieway and held him to one yard on 12 carries. Holieway had been averaging almost 100 yards rushing per game. "I thought I played pretty well," says Conlan, who also had six tackles and a fumble recovery, "but it didn't matter because we lost."

There seems little doubt that next year Conlan will become the 24th Joe Paterno-coached Penn State linebacker to step into the NFL. "I think that in all probability he'll be either the second, third or fourth player selected in the draft," says Cowboy vice-president-personnel development Gil Brandt. "I don't see any weaknesses there. He's a competitor, he's got the size and speed that you look for and he's got the athletic ability that you want in a linebacker."

"I believe there's a can't-miss category for him," says Reed Johnson, the Broncos' director of player personnel.

Conlan may well be John Madden's dream player: pure football in a no-frills can. He's the kind of guy who can't wait to get out of the locker room. "I hate warmups, all that pregame stuff," Conlan says. "And I really hate night games, sitting around the hotel all day. Drives me nuts."

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