When offensive line coach Bill Kenney told Quinn Barham to start working on his tackle stance a day after last season's Capital One Bowl, Barham thought his coach was joking.
The junior hadn't played tackle since high school and never came close in college because of Penn State's depth at the position during the past two seasons.
But as Kenney prophesized, four days into practice, the Nittany Lions reshuffled their offensive line to its current formation -- one with Barham as the first-team left tackle. The combination also includes senior Stefen Wisniewski moving from center to right guard and senior Lou Eliades shifting from right guard to tackle.
Barham said the overhaul wasn't easy at first for any of the linemen, but in the last week or so he has seen the unit begin to mesh.
"They threw us in the fire, and they let us burn for a little bit," Barham said. "After that, we just started coming together."
Completing the first-team line is senior Doug Klopacz at center and junior DeOn'tae Pannell at left guard. Barham said more change up front is possible, but the lineup right now is "pretty set."
The wild card on the front five is junior guard Johnnie Troutman, who started eight games last season. But Wisniewski said Troutman is in head coach Joe Paterno's doghouse as a result of missed classes, missed team breakfasts and weight issues.
With Troutman on the second team, the five current starters combined for 33 starts last season, 26 of them coming from Eliades and Wisniewski, who started every game. Wisniewski, a potential captain for the fall who was named first-team all conference last season, feels more comfortable at guard than at center, citing his ability to get off the ball quicker because he doesn't have to worry about snapping. Wisniewski moved to center last season after playing guard in 2008, when he was a second-team all-conference honoree. The switch back took time, but he is on the brink of fully readjusting, he said.
"I don't think it's mental as much as it is physical," Wisniewski said. "For most of us, we're just moving one position over, and you know what those guys are doing anyway. It's not so much learning things as much as it's training your body to react."
With Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin, who threw a combined 13 times last season, as frontrunners for the starting quarterback spot, Wisniewski said the offensive line will have an extra sense of urgency in its protection this fall.
Ultimately, he said, the success of the quarterback could hinge primarily on the front five.
"If you give him lots of time to sort things out, you can make him look like a veteran," Wisniewski said. "But if he's under a lot of pressure and he's a guy who doesn't have a lot of game experience, he might be prone to make some mistakes."
Barham, who has the task of protecting the blind side for whoever wins the job, agreed with Wisniewski, saying, "the team is on our shoulders." But in last week's Big Ten coaches' teleconference, Paterno called the line "average." Barham said he understands the criticism, but he has a chip on his shoulder to prove he deserves the spot and the offensive line can exceed expectations.
"The position is important, and I would love to show people that I can play it, I can protect my quarterback and I can be the anchor for my line and my team," he said. "I'm ready to play, and I'm ready to work at it and get better. I'm ready for that responsibility."
Despite all the talk of inexperience up front, McGloin said he was confident in whatever decision the coaches make and the way the unit has gelled in the spring.
"These are all good football players, and they wouldn't be here if they couldn't do it," McGloin said. "You have to trust in your coaches and in your lines as well. You have to trust that they're gonna get the right blocks and that the coaches will put you in the right places."