Formidable Front?

Despite several key personnel losses over the past several months, the Nittany Lions expect big things from their defensive line.

With another season fast approaching, Joe Paterno was riled up about many things Tuesday. He wanted no part of his weekly press conference, where he bristled at the mere mention of suspended linebacker Dan Connor and snorted “let's talk about the football team” when asked for thoughts on his own future.

Paterno was, however, surprisingly upbeat when addressing the Nittany Lions' defensive line, which has been impacted by a series of personnel losses in recent months.

“I think we're doing OK, we're pretty good there,” he said.

Penn State's issues up front have been well-documented. Though the Lions return three strong starters in ends Tamba Hali and Matthew Rice and tackle Jay Alford, several other players expected to contribute in 2005 are no longer in the picture.

Senior Lavon Chisley, who was supposed to form a three-man end rotation with Hali and Rice, is academically ineligible this semester. Ed Johnson, a former starter at tackle, has been bounced from the university through the end of the fall semester due to off-the-field issues. Backup defensive end Amani Purcell transferred to Hawaii.

“We lost some soldiers, and we're gonna move on,” Rice said.

Scott Paxson, another former starter at tackle, spent the preseason working his way back up the depth chart after being busted to the bottom because of his own disciplinary issues.

Though listed as a second-teamer, he will be part of a three-man rotation in the gut with Alford and Jim Shaw, a transfer from Rice and the brother of Lion offensive lineman John Shaw. Jim Shaw was described by Alford as “an animal. He has to be one of the strongest defensive linemen we have. He's unreal.”

Paterno said Shaw has been slowed by a “bad toe,” but it did not sound as if the injury would keep him out of Saturday's matchup with South Florida at Beaver Stadium.

Chisley, on the other hand, has most likely played his last game as a Nittany Lion. Rice said Chisley still hopes to graduate from Penn State, but he's not certain what his friend and fellow Maryland native will do as far as football is concerned.

“It hurts,” Rice said. “Lavon is like a brother to me, man. I've been playing with him since high school all-star games. But we still have a three-man rotation. Josh Gaines, one of our younger players, has stepped up.”

Gaines is a 6-foot-2, 263-pound redshirt freshman with strong pass-rushing skills. Classmate Mike Lucian, a 6-2, 285-pounder, is also seeing action at end.

“We have a strong defensive line corps,” Rice said. “Josh Gaines and Mike Lucian have stepped up tremendously and we can get it done with them.”


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