Penn State offensive line aims for upgrade

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Joe Paterno didn't hide his concern about Penn State's offensive line when addressing reporters last week.

"We don't have any depth there," the coach said. "We don't have a good, solid first-string offensive line yet. That's our first job."

It's hardly a revelation that the Big Ten's best teams are strong along the offensive line. Wisconsin and Iowa have elevated their programs largely because of their line play. Michigan State will become a perennial league title contender when it churns out great lines year after year.

Not surprisingly, Penn State's best teams in recent years have been superb on the offensive front, but last year's line endured inconsistent play. Although the Lions allowed only 12 sacks -- tied with Michigan for 10th fewest nationally -- they couldn't get the run game going until the second half of the season. Penn State finished ninth in the league and 74th nationally in rushing, its lowest finish since 2004 (81st nationally).

"For all the [talk about] the offensive line being such a big question mark, we didn't give up that many sacks, we were able to get [Evan] Royster the rushing record, so there were definitely some bright spots," right tackle Chima Okoli said. "Myself included, there's a good amount we also have to work on. By no means are we done."

Penn State should be fine at the tackle spots as starters Okoli and Quinn Barham both return. Senior DeOn'tae Pannell has nine career starts and Johnnie Troutman started the final 11 games last season at left guard.

The Lions must replace standout Stefen Wisniewski, who started at both guard and center during his career. But overall depth, as Paterno noted, could be a problem.

"We've got four seniors," Okoli said, "and as you get older, you've kind of earned your right in the hierarchy to say what you'd like to get done with the younger guys."

Penn State's line play has become a testy topic for fans the past two seasons.

The Lions' last elite offensive line led the team to a Big Ten title in 2008. It included Rimington Trophy winner A.Q. Shipley and three first-team All-Big Ten players (Shipley and tackles Rich Ohrnberger and Gerald Cadogan).

"They definitely set the bar," Okoli said. "If we can be anywhere close to those guys' level, we'll definitely compete for things I believe we're due for."