Laying it on the (Offensive) Line

Laughing both at and with the jolly fat guy comes naturally for most people who enjoy physical comedy. The palpable essence of friendliness that exudes from their skin is the unique quality that the few with possession love to share with an audience. John Candy and Chris Farley, both gone but certainly not forgotten, come to mind as perfect fits.

Fans fondly remember the former snuggling with Steve Martin's "pillows" in a hotel room and the latter asking guests obvious yet hysterical questions during his self-titled talk show sketch on a famous live weekend comedy program.

One of the most famous jolly giants in the world of sports is John Madden. Although Madden certainly fits the bill physically, humor is not at the helm of his strengths and his attempts over the years have driven many away. The very first Thanksgiving broadcast on which Madden dissected the parts of a turkey with his teleprompter on the Detroit Lions' sideline was somewhat amusing. But the same act year after year simply became as annoying as those that claim to have played Texas Hold ‘Em for many years before the release of Rounders.

However, the aggravating aspects of Madden's act in the booth should not overshadow one of the truisms about football by which he swears: it all starts with the offensive line. Very true, John — not funny, but certainly accurate.

For Penn State, 2005 brought joy to fans who were gasping for a non-losing season. An 11-1 record and a victory in the Orange Bowl not only satisfied their hunger, but also brought renewed pride to a program that many left for dead. However, the long wait is over and with the season closing fast, the pivotal question remains at the surface:

What now?

The new conception that State only delivers a competitive team every three years passed inspection with flying colors in 2005, but the real test is forthcoming. Although it is not plausible for Joe Paterno to mend the broken hearts that bled during the losing seasons of 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004, he certainly has the power to make sure that this time, the ship has been permanently righted.

Love Madden or hate him, his pearl regarding the group of men assigned to block and protect is crucial to Penn State's success in 2006. The offensive line on any football team is the unit that will either serve as the anchor to a great season or the conduit to a dreadful one.

That is certainly not new information.

What is new, however, is the way Paterno runs his empire. The icon will never go into detail about the changes, but they are certainly visible. Even more than giving Tom Bradley and Galen Hall vast control, there are subtle differences within the program that further convey how the legend has changed.

The fact that he spoke with the media after this most recent recruiting class signed their letters-of-intent is evidence enough. In the past, the mere mention of freshmen players, let alone young men who were still six months away from even obtaining freshman eligibility, was blasphemy for anyone under Paterno.

"We don't make any comments about freshmen," former offensive coordinator and assistant head coach Fran Ganter said in 1999. "We totally stay away from commenting about our recruiting class."

But in early 2006, Paterno smiled and answered questions. Ganter is another signal of recent change. Once perceived as the heir to the throne, he moved into an administrative position following the 2003 season after serving as Paterno's right-hand man for many years.

So by the most basic definition of the Commutative Property, it would make sense that if changes can and already have taken place, it is both possible and likely that more important ones are on the horizon.

This is a program that should compete for the Big Ten title every single season, not every three years. A fix only comes when the problem is recognized, and it is imperative that Paterno address the reasons why recently, it has taken him three years to rebuild an offensive line after the majority of the previous season's senior-laden unit graduates.

Other programs — Michigan, Florida State and Oklahoma to name a few — simply plug sophomores and juniors into the open spots and before the beginning of the conference schedule, the group gels and has already memorized intricate blocking assignments.

After a good season in 1999, the next two seasons were vile. After the good season of 2002, the next two were even worse. Paterno has been in the business long enough to realize that the road to success begins up front. So why wasn't he able to build decent offensive lines for the two seasons that followed both 1999 and 2002?

If you dare say recruiting, hold your breath. The influx of talent over the past six or seven years has been very solid, certainly good enough to assemble a competitive line. The contention that the fault lies with the recruiting experts is ludicrous. Some will offer that the incoming freshmen were simply overrated, so the fact that they struggled to earn their weight in gold is due to the faulty high expectations from the outset. There will always be a few top-rated players who fail to live up to expectations, but most of the time, the ratings are rather accurate.

Mark Farris signed with Penn State in February of 2002 as the ninth-ranked offensive line prospect in the nation. Certainly it was expected that Farris would become an important member of the five-man unit after the 2002 ensemble graduated. At present, even more of a disappointment than the lack of relevant snaps that Farris has registered over the past several seasons is the fact that, entering his senior year, he is barely even mentioned as a candidate for a starting position in 2006. The following recruiting season saw Paterno land Joel Holler, a highly touted offensive tackle who chose PSU over the Miami Hurricanes and Ohio State. After failing to gain even a sniff of the three-deep, Holler packed up and transferred to the University of Delaware.

Bad luck? No. Bad luck was the story of Brian Borgoyn, the No. 17 overall offensive lineman who signed with Farris in the 2002 class but suffered a career-ending spinal injury during his freshman year. Could the failures of Farris and Holler be chalked up to circumstantial happenstance? Maybe. But for those that love rankings, chew on this: in both 2002 and 2004, Penn State recruited the No. 2 overall offensive line group in the country, once behind Tennessee and the other Florida State.

It took Tyler Reed three full seasons to become an above-average guard. If the goal is to finish with an above average record and qualify for an above average bowl game, that is acceptable. But Penn State fans don't use the term "above average" in the same sentence as their beloved team. The fact that Paterno spoiled his fan base for three decades does not make his twilight years exempt from criticism; his coaching staff has done an inadequate job of teaching, maturing and toughening the slew of talented linemen recruits over the recent past.

But that is the beauty of second chances, or third ones in this case. The 2006 team will not be as good as last season's outfit, but a repeat Big Ten title is not out of the question. Seriously.

It is not a stretch to say that Penn State's offensive skill position players are among the best in the conference. Tony Hunt was one of the two best overall tailbacks in the Big Ten last season. I dare you to name a more talented trio of wide receivers in the league than Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood.

On the other side of the ball, three stud returning linebackers, a secondary loaded with young talent and a proven defensive architect running the show creates the provision that the 2006 defense is not a concern. Bradley will have his troops in mid-season form by the time that flight to Columbus departs.

As blitz-hungry as the trio of Penn State linebackers will be in 2006, starting quarterback Anthony Morelli will face similar pressure in every game. The key to a productive offense, of course, is a successful running game, as well a sturdy offensive line to achieve that success. However, even more important with Morelli — who cannot scramble for first downs and escape danger the way Michael Robinson so brilliantly did last season — under center will be his ability to develop the pocket presence that will only materialize if he is well protected.

That protection will only exist if Paterno continues with the aforementioned changes in the program, and this particular adjustment is not exclusive to Paterno himself. The real nuts and bolts work falls to his son Jay and offensive line coaches Bill Kenney and Dick Anderson. Their ability — or inability — to identify and prepare the correct line combination for the rigors of a 12-game season will be the difference between a recurrence of the recent fallout years that have followed a great season and a 9-3 record.

With tackle Levi Brown and center A.Q. Shipley already solidified, that leaves openings at the two guard spots and the opposite tackle. Greg Harrison is the perfect candidate to lead the transformation; he will be a redshirt sophomore and was the fourth overall offensive line prospect in the country signed in 2004. Gerald Cadogen, though not as highly rated as Harrison, is another key youngster who must prove effective immediately. Cadogen was a top prep player who the Lions snatched from Michigan and Ohio State. Others in the mix are John Shaw and Chris Auletta at right tackle, with Robert Price and Rich Ohrnberger likely battling Harrison and Cadogen inside at guard.

During preseason practice, maybe Anderson will alter the blocking techniques he teaches, or the younger Paterno will look for different tendencies. Perhaps Kenney will favor quickness over strength.

But the crux of the issue is this: it doesn't matter how they do it, or which players are chosen. They just need to get it right. It is time for talented high school blockers to block with college-level intensity and it no longer can take them three years to get there.

This is a roster loaded with enough talent to shake the recent three-year trend and return the program to a perennial contender. Yes, perennial — as in "every year." If the Lions' 2006 campaign concludes at home against Michigan State on Nov. 18 and the bowl season rolls on without Paterno for the fifth time in seven years — more specifically, if this coaching staff once again follows up a terrific season with an offensive line that is unable to compete in the Big Ten, thus wasting the fruits of their tireless recruiting labor — the consequences will be devastating for a program that finally began to convince the world it has returned to prominence.

But is it back for good, or will 2008 be the next time the wins outnumber the losses?

The answer will be found within five young men who have plenty to prove, and a veteran offensive coaching staff which must realize not only the urgency and importance of the next 12 games, but also the affect that their personnel decisions made in August will have on the results.

If the wrong decisions are made and the 2006 offensive line fails to pave the way for what should be a nine-win team, the season will be over before the late November national holiday. In that scenario, on the bright side, at least they'll be able to watch one of the all-time classic Thanksgiving movies starring the aforementioned Candy.

"Those aren't pillows!"


Fight On State Top Stories