Brown Shouldering The Load

Looking for excuses from veteran tackle Levi Brown over Penn State's suspect running game the past two years? You are not going to get them. The redshirt junior says criticism of the line is justified, but he aims to turn those jeers into cheers in 2005.

If the first step toward recovery is to admit there's a problem, Penn State's offensive line may finally be headed down the right path.

The Nittany Lions' front five has come under heavy criticism the past two years. The words “path” and “offensive line” have rarely appeared in the same sentence during that span, and the team's failure to mount a consistent running game has played a big role in its 7-16 record.

Players often react defensively when called out by fans and media. Who wants to take the fall for a losing skid, especially one that lasts two full seasons?

But if Levi Brown has a problem with some of the accusations that have been lobbed at Penn State's beleaguered offensive front, he certainly hides it well.

“Whenever you're not winning you're going to be criticized,” said the redshirt junior tackle. “At times we haven't played up to our potential, so I think the criticism is justified.”

The Nittany Lions finished ninth in the Big Ten in rushing each of the past two seasons, averaging 129.9 yards per game last season and 122 in 2003.

How could a program that used to churn out NFL-caliber linemen on a seemingly annual basis turn into such a pushover? Brown blames the team's recent problems on inconsistency, noting that sometimes players would “show up in the second quarter.”

“Everybody has to be ready to play,” he said.

Few would accuse Brown of not being ready. He started all but one game as a sophomore even though he was forced to play much of the season with an injured knee. Brown admitted the pain bothered him at times, so much so that he underwent an arthroscopic procedure in December. He said he feels “pretty much 100 percent now” and has discarded the brace he wore last fall.

With Brown returning for his third year as a starter, the Nittany Lions appear to be on solid ground at left tackle. It's the other positions that have observers worried, and a turbulent off-season has only served to heighten concerns.

Tackle Andrew Richardson, guard Tyler Reed and center E.Z. Smith - all of whom have ample starting experience - were suspended this spring in connection with a January incident in which a number of arrows were fired into the wall of an on-campus apartment. Richardson and Reed were later cleared in a university investigation and have returned to the squad, albeit as fourth-teamers. Smith has not been reinstated, and his status for the fall has not been determined.

The starting line in spring practice has consisted of Brown and senior John Wilson at tackle, senior Charles Rush and junior Robert Price at guard, and senior Lance Antolick at center.

Brown praised the players who stepped in for the missing veterans and said he couldn't predict whether Richardson and Reed would be given a chance to regain their positions. “They messed up,” he said, “so they have to take the punishment.”

While some of the Lions' veteran players might have trouble getting back on the field this coming fall, Brown is facing the opposite scenario - he may never get off the field. He would seem a likely candidate for All-Conference recognition if he stays healthy and the team's running game improves. And that's just the beginning.

“My personal goals are set real high. I don't want to get into them right now,” he said. “But by the time it's over, I want to be one of the best in the country if not the best.”

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