Thoughts and Second Thoughts: Power Lines

I've had my fill of bowl-watching over the last two weeks. In some cases the games were electric (Michigan-Texas or Iowa-LSU), and in some cases they were feeble (Auburn-Virginia Tech).

But one thing was constant among the best teams - a solid, consistent offensive line. Strong teams are built from the inside-out, commencing with the respective lines, getting those particular units in order, and then moving onward. Reflecting on Penn State's 2004 woes, the defensive line was solid and actually improved immeasurably as the year progressed.

Yet the offensive line fell far short of expectations. In fact, this writer felt that it would be one of the strengths of the entire team, building on the painful learning experiences and on-the-job training of the ugly 2003 season. Nevertheless, I was wrong - painfully wrong. Not the first time, won't be the last. Ask my wife.

Joe Paterno even expected this area to be strong, commenting in the preseason that the unit has "worked well together" and "grown together" and "it's an area we shouldn't be concerned about." However, the offensive line - as a whole and the individual players -regressed mightily, contributing to Penn State's offensive plight.

Let's figure out why, by first looking at the excuses that have been bandied around as fodder for the poor play:

Eight or nine men in the box: The Nittany Nation heard this line a lot last year -a general statement that because of an inability to throw the ball to skill people on the outside, who can not consistently get open, the opposing defenses will load up in the box and take away the run, creating a stalemate, and thus NO offense.

I'm just not buying that anymore. Watch Minnesota.

In their tussle in the Music City Bowl against a tough Alabama team, it routinely faced nine-man fronts, The Crimson Tide gambled on man-to-man press coverage, forcing young Gopher quarterback Bryan Cupito to throw the ball. He didn't. Instead, behind All-American center Greg Eslinger, the Gophers patiently, stubbornly, kept handing off to their vaunted tailbacks, Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney. They picked up 276 yards rushing on 72 attempts against one of the nation's premier rushing defenses and, ultimately, a solid bowl win.

I guess when you want it bad enough, you're going to get it, regardless of the situation. Glen Mason and his staff stuck with what got them there in the first place. It's called patience and swagger. Which leads me to the next excuse:

These guys just aren't nasty enough: They're might be some truth to this one. Paterno called some of the OL players "soft-spoken choir boys" on one of his radio shows. They certainly are not in the mold of a rugged nasty Steve Wisniewski or Keith Dorney, who would start a fight if you looked at them sideways. For this line to excel, the player must develop attitudes.

They're not strong enough: Cascades of venom, as well as unquestioned support, have been debated across numerous Internet chat boards that John Thomas' strength and conditioning program is or is not producing strong enough lineman to muscle out a difficult yard or two in a clutch situation. Numerous NFL players who are Penn State grads swear by Coach T's program, and state that's not the problem. And it was Coach T who produced the six NFL offensive linemen who came off the 1994 and 1995 squads.

Could the strength and condition program be reviewed, assessed and tweaked compared to other Big Ten programs? Absolutely.

They need more time together: Hmmmmm ... four out of five members of the group were returning from 2003, and had a collective 12 games starting together, plus the entire spring and fall practice. That's what led people to believe this would be the strongest unit on the team -the experience, and the anticipated development. The development never occurred. Individually, some players really struggled.

Tackle Levi Brown showed much promise out of the 2003 rubble. Just a redshirt freshman at the time, he was one of the very few bright spots. Yet he regressed last fall with many mental errors that led to costly drive-stopping penalties or opposing defensive advantages.

Guard Charles Rush was pulled in every game because of poor technique, mental lapses, penalties or all of the above. Redshirt senior Scott Davis took his place, and actually started the last game against Michigan State, and (get this) was voted the team's outstanding offensive lineman for the year. That about captures it all.

Guard Tyler Reed, probably the most heavily recruited lineman on the team, stalled in his development and didn't become the overpowering lineman everyone talked about when he was redshirted. The jury is still out on Reed.

Center E.Z. Smith, back from off-the-field problems in 2003, was moved back to his natural position from guard. But Penn State still couldn't establish a consistent inside running game that it so desperately needed for success.

Lastly, Andrew Richardson grew into the starting right tackle spot after being recruited as a tight end. Word out of preseason camp was that Richardson had shown the most improvement. Comparisons were being made to all-everything Iowa tackle and NFL prodigy Robert Gallery.

In reality, due to his inexperience, Richardson exposed the Penn State quarterbacks to too many charging defensive ends. Richardson was eventually replaced by Florida native John Wilson.

So experience as a group doesn't seem to be the issue. Individual and unit development does, which leads me to the final excuse…

The blocking schemes and coaching are outdated: When Galen Hall was hired as the offensive coordinator last year, one of the first elements he introduced was zone blocking. Certainly, Penn State was the LAST school in the entire Big Ten to install this blocking technique. Zone blocking is a much simpler technique to execute than the man-to-man approach, particularly against fast, strong defensive lines, which Penn State seemed to face every week in the conference. Zone blocking requires quickness and teamwork to create cutback lanes for the running backs.

After struggling to run the ball against Boston College in a critical early loss, Paterno threw the baby out with the bath water and reverted to the "slow man-up" blocking of yesteryear, which requires brute man-on-man strength. Then he came back to elements of the zone scheme against Michigan State in the season finale. Go figure.

A lot is blamed on the coaching assistants: Dick Anderson and Bill Kenney. Granted, given what has been produced over the last two years in terms of offensive line development and production, it is very difficult to rationalize and support their methods and philosophies.

Solution:

This is NOT one easy problem to solve but rather several challenges that need to be addressed, commencing this spring, to get the offensive line back to its usual "Penn State" self.

All positions must be opened for spring practice. Given the lack of production over the last two years, I would be interested in a valid argument that any of the before-mentioned players deserve their starting jobs without competition.

We hear wonderful reports on Trent Varva, Mark Farris, Greg Harrison, Rich Ohrnberger and Gerald Cadogan. As bad as the line was last season, this young crew should be placed on equal footing with the veterans.

Should the staff move Smith back to guard, where he played and excelled as a redshirt freshman, and start Varva at center? Should Wilson compete against Harrison, Cadogan and Farris? Should Brown compete for his spot because of his disappointing year?

The answer to all of those questions is yes. Penn State needs the FIVE best players out there who have a nasty swagger about them.

That is a must. Whether it happens is another story.

More importantly, the coaching staff needs to be patient. There were too many games last year that the staff (read Paterno) abandoned the running game prematurely thinking the Lions couldn't run against and eight- or nine-man front. I would state that had they given the running game more time, the passing game -particularly the play-action portion -could have worked better over the course of a game.

Keep in mind, PSU only had 21 rushing yards on 22 carries against Minnesota. Then it had 18 yards on 17 carries against Purdue. Both teams were not among the country's more stellar defenses. In fact, Minnesota just terminated its defensive line coach.

For the Nittany Lions to get back into the top 20, the running must get back on track. When Penn State runs, it wins. The horses, in the form of Austin Scott, Tony Hunt and Rodney Kinlaw, are there.

But the desire, the attitude, the swagger and the cohesiveness of the offensive lineman ultimately determine the success or failure of the running attack, and ultimately Penn State's successes or woes.

Finally, while everyone is excited at the bevy of skill-position recruiting prospects the staff is accumulating to answer current speed challenges on offense, the key question still remains on campus, and not out there in the recruiting world: Can the offensive line rise to the occasion?

It better for this program to get back to its position among the college football elite.


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