Editor's Note: This is the seventh of an eight-part series previewing the football team.
For a unit accustomed to dealing with anonymity, the Nittany Lion offensive line is quite a heralded bunch. Three starters return, including first-team All-Big Ten selection Jeff Hartings, in addition to tight end Kyle Brady.
The line lost dependable starting tackles Mike Malinoski and Derick Pickett to graduation. "Losing Pickett and Malinoski was a big loss," backup center Barry Tielsch said. "They were good guys to look up to because they worked hard."
But their replacements -- 6-foot-7, 301-pound Keith Conlin and 6-foot-5, 295-pound Andre Johnson --have combined to make this year's offensive line the largest in Nittany Lion history.
Yet, the offensive line is among the biggest concerns for the Nittany Lions, Coach Joe Paterno said.
"We have some of our backup linemen and they're not quite ready yet to play," Paterno said. "If you had asked me, 'Hey, if (guard Marco) Rivera got hurt and so-and-so got hurt on the offensive line, how do you feel?' I'd be scared to death right now. That's the one area -- that and punting --that we've got to make progress."
As long as the Nittany Lions can remain healthy on offense, they needn't worry about either of Paterno's pinpointed areas. With the explosive tailback triumvirate of Mike Archie, Ki-Jana Carter and Stephen Pitts and a receiving corps led by Bobby Engram, making first downs -- and avoiding punts -- shouldn't be a problem.
But the one player who has drawn the most attention on offense is a linemen, sort of. Brady, the 6-foot-6, 255-pound fifth-year tight end, is widely recognized as the best at his position in the conference, if not the nation.
"Kyle Brady is one of the better tight ends in the country," Paterno said. "If there's a better blocking tight end in the country, I haven't seen it. If we've got two or three people hanging around Bobby Engram, we'll go to Kyle."
And so it is, a lineman the key to the offense.
"I think Kyle's probably the most important part of our offense," quarterback Kerry Collins said, calling Brady "a guy we've got to get the ball to more."
But Paterno will need his men up the middle to provide downfield blocks for the running backs and protection for Collins in passing situations. That's where Bucky Greeley, Jeff Hartings and Marco Rivera will earn their keep.
Greeley, a 6-foot-3, 277-pound fifth-year senior, will once again start at center. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound Hartings earned all-conference awards as a redshirt sophomore last year at long guard. Rivera has completely recovered from a shoulder injury during the Illinois game that sidelined him the remainder of last season.
"I don't think he's having problems with his shoulder. He hasn't missed a snap," Paterno said of the 6-foot-5, 280-pounder who started at long tackle last year, but will return to his natural position --short guard. "He's at the right weight, he runs well, he's got good judgment when he blocks on the run. And I think that's a good spot for him and I don't think there was that much of an adjustment."
After the starters comes a group of inexperienced substitutes that has given Paterno cause for worry. Listed as backups on the depth chart are untested Wayne Holmes, Bill Anderson, Pete Marczyk and Dale Harvey. After a stint on the defensive line in the spring, Boris Oden has returned as well.
Only Tielsch, a redshirt sophomore who played extensively at center against Indiana and Illinois, has much experience. Tielsch doesn't anticipate much playing time unless Greeley is injured, and he ruled out a position change.