The five Penn State offensive linemen who played against Florida State in the Orange Bowl at the end of last season had started a combined 115 games among them. That means the quintet had at least two and sometimes three years of experience working together. That's an intangible quality that went a long way toward explaining why Penn State was second in the Big Ten in rushing last season with 233 yards per game.
The five linemen who figure to take the field for Penn State's Sept. 2 opener against Akron have 35 starts among them, 34 by four-year starting left tackle Levi Brown.
Of the four new starters who earned jobs in the spring, only senior Robert Price has started, and that came in last season's opener against South Florida because Tyler Reed was being disciplined.
The inexperience factor is why Penn State coach Joe Paterno has identified the offensive line as his biggest concern heading into the season.
"Obviously, it's going to be a problem until they get into a ball game and somebody knocks them around a little bit," Paterno said. "[Line coaches] Dick Anderson and Bill Kenney do a good job, and I think the [line] will be all right. We probably have better athletes [than last season], but they are very young right now. How are they going to react to some of the things they are going to have to do?"
Paterno's offensive lines have a history of getting better with age. It was not a coincidence last season that a line of four seniors and a junior combined to form one of the conference's top units. Brown, who came back for his senior season after thinking about turning professional, is the lone returning starter.
The other players who finished the spring at the top of the depth chart are sophomore center A.Q. Shipley (6-1, 297), sophomore guard Gerald Cadogan (6-5, 311), senior guard Price (6-0, 299) and junior tackle John Shaw (6-4, 299). Sophomore Rich Ohrnberger (6-2, 296) is pushing Price at right guard and junior Chris Auletta (6-4, 300) is pushing Shaw at right tackle. Ohrnberger and Auletta have never started a game .
Shipley and Shaw are converted defensive linemen. Shipley played defensive tackle the second half of last season and recorded five tackles and two sacks in the final four games. Shaw redshirted last season but played defensive tackle in 2004, serving as a top reserve.
Defensive tackles are more athletic than most offensive linemen, but learning how to play offensive line sometimes can be a long process. There is a different mentality associated with the position. Instead of coming off the ball and attacking on every snap, offensive linemen must learn the finesse involved in pass protection and must be able to think through adjustments and work together with the four other linemen. There is more thinking involved in offensive line play than any other position besides quarterback.
Offensive linemen often are adjusting to the defense in the seconds leading up to each play. All five players must be working as one or the play that has been called will not work.
"I think the biggest thing is for us to get on the same page," Brown said. "You have to build the relationships and build the bonds with those guys."
"It's very important," Shipley concurred. "Without timing and continuity on an offensive line you really have nothing. You have to be comfortable with the guy on your right and the guy on your left. The four [new players] were together in the spring. Levi didn't do too much in the spring. All five of us have to work on becoming one unit."
It would be ideal if the offensive line could ease into things, but Penn State's early season schedule does not comply. The first game is against Akron, the defending Mid-American Conference champion. To complicate matters, the Zips play an unconventional 3-5 defensive front. After that are road games against No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 1 Ohio State in the next three weeks.
"I think that eventually it will be a good offensive line," Paterno said. "They are tough kids and good athletes. I don't have any problem with the quality of athlete we have on the offensive line. We are inexperienced. It's going to take a while before we get comfortable."
Brown is confident his new line mates will rise to the challenge. He said all they need is a little seasoning.
"They're willing to be coached and all want to prove they can play," Brown said. "They're all hearing that the offensive line is going to be a problem point for our team, and they all want to go out and prove that they can play.
"There will always be a transition period whether there was one new guy or four like our situation. I have to help motivate them. They can't get down when one play goes wrong. I have to tell them that that play is over and you have to focus on the next play. They have to learn the attitude it takes to be an offensive lineman. Once they get the attitude down they can go as far as they want to go."
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.