Questions linger around Penn State's O-line

Questions linger around Penn State's O-line
September 1, 2011, 5:48 pm
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- So an offensive lineman, a safety and about a dozen other Penn State seniors walk into Joe Paterno's house.

Chima Okoli picks up the punch line.

"There's a picture with him, and the rest of his kids, probably in 1812 or something," the right tackle joked about the gathering this week at the home of his 84-year-old coach.

Laugh now, Okoli, because the pressure will fall squarely on the front five once the new season kicks off Saturday against Indiana State of the FCS.

Analyzing and rehashing offensive line play is a time-honored tradition for Nittany Lions fans, as much a part of autumn Saturdays in Happy Valley as tailgating and raking leaves.

Okoli, left tackle Quinn Barham and guard Johnnie Troutman are the three returning starters up front from a line that allowed just 12 sacks, statistically one of the best in the country.

Troutman, though, hasn't secured a starting spot at right guard, where sophomore John Urschel has made a push. They're in the mix to replace perhaps the biggest loss on the offense in standout right guard Stefen Wisniewski. The former three-year starter was selected in the second round of the NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders.

Barham reads blogs, message boards and web sites and expects to get external pressure as a lineman. Fan opinions, both positive and negative, for the most part have been fair, he said.

"There's nothing you're going to do about it," Barham said, "but prove people wrong."

Paterno must also find a new starting center, with junior Matt Stankewitch listed as the first-stringer heading into the season. Senior DeOn'tae Pannell, who started two games last season at left guard before being replaced by Troutman, is listed as the starter at the same position on the Week 1 depth chart.

Paterno is fine so far with the line, though he remains concerned about developing competent backups for the front five -- even more so than the unsettled quarterback derby between Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin.

"The quarterback situation is not one of my concerns right now," Paterno said. "My biggest concern right now is where we've got to get a little more depth."

The line will also be leading the way for a new featured back in sophomore Silas Redd, who's expected to take over for four-year starter Evan Royster. Redd is more of a shifty, explosive back than Royster, so offensive coordinator Galen Hall said the line may need to do more work in creating holes.

As it was, the running game struggled at times last year, too. The "get-tough" attitude that Paterno has been emphasizing in preseason camp has carried over to the line.

"The attitude to stay on your block until the whistle ends," Pannell said. "That's what we've been trying to do. Get guys on the ground, finish blocks.

"We're going to bring it to you, until you say you don't want any part of it."

They're not just tough guys up front, though. Barham and Okoli, in particular, are affable, vocal seniors who show promise of being effective leaders.

It was no surprise, then, that Okoli was among the group of seniors who visited Paterno's modest ranch home this week in State College to talk in part about leadership and team captains. Jokes aside, Okoli described it as walking into a "football museum" with so many mementos adorning the walls and tables.

If things work out this season, maybe Okoli will get his picture up on the wall, too.

"If you don't believe that you can be the best, then there's no point in doing it," Okoli said. "There's no one who thrives on mediocrity."

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