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AFTER STRUGGLING THROUGH THE FIRST PART OF THE DECADE, the Nittany Lions have known stability for the past five years, sharing the conference title twice while remaining ranked in the last 33 weeks of the AP poll. But this year uncertainty reigns on offense.
The disorder is most evident on the offensive line, whose reconfiguration has played out like an Abbott and Costello routine. Last season Penn State, trying to optimize chemistry and player potential at each position, tried five line combinations (including four in the first six games), and the losses of tackles Dennis Landolt and Ako Poti have the Lions tinkering all over again. Though the line retains five players with starting experience, only two started all 13 games last year: all-conference senior Stefen Wisniewski (who moves from center to right guard) and senior Lou Eliades (who slides from right guard to tackle). They'll be joined by junior DeOn'tae Pannell (tackle to guard), redshirt junior Quinn Barham (guard-center to tackle) and fifth-year senior Doug Klopacz (backup to starting center). And it's possible that coach Joe Paterno will continue moving pieces around into the fall. "We have a very average offensive line," he said in April.
Also fluid is the quarterback situation, which was sent into a tailspin with the departure of alltime PSU touchdown leader Daryll Clark. The contest to replace him is down to sophomores Matthew McGloin, a former preferred walk-on who played in two games in '09; Kevin Newsome, a high-profile recruit who rarely saw the field while backing up Clark last year; and freshman Paul Jones, who impressed in the spring game.
Amid this shakiness, however, certain players should continue to thrive. Senior Evan Royster, who is 481 yards shy of becoming the school's alltime rushing leader, keys the running game. Receivers Derek Moye and Graham Zug, who combined for 94 catches, 1,385 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, are big-play threats.
The Lions are a solid program but have not broken the 11-win barrier since 1994. Converting one of those losses into a victory would make them a serious part of the national conversation at year's end. Penn State should be strong enough to remain in the top half of the conference. How much higher the team rises will depend on how its mix settles.
COACH Joe Paterno (45th year)
394-129-3 (86-50 in Big Ten)