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Pannell's up-and-down career epitomizes why PSU's offensive line frequently struggles
September 1, 2011 - Cory Giger
If you want an explanation for why Penn State's offensive line struggles year after year, let's examine DeOn'tae Pannell's career.
The senior epitomizes many of the issues that have plagued the Nittany Lions' O-line, which once again is a major question mark entering this season.
Pannell came to PSU in 2008 as a highly touted linemen, a four-star recruit from Michigan. The 6-foot-5, 305-pound mountain of man had so much natural ability and impressed the coaches so quickly that he got to play in his first game as a true freshman, against Coastal Carolina, then saw action as the backup left tackle in seven more games that year.
Pannell appeared to be a potential mainstay on the line, a guy who would only get better and better and that the coaches could pencil in the starting lineup for the next three years.
But that hasn't been the case.
Pannell won a starting job at the beginning of each of the past two seasons, only to lose it to injury in 2009 and ineffective play last year.
He's been too inconsistent. Never showed much improvement. Not tough enough for the rugged Big Ten. Poor technique. Battled weight problems. Frequently changed positions.
Basically the same problems many PSU linemen seem to have trying to live up to their potential.
The players deserve their share of the blame, but the frequent line struggles ultimately fall on coaches Dick Anderson and Bill Kenney, who absolutely must do a better job of developing the linemen.
Pannell has earned a starting job once again this season, at left guard, so he has one more opportunity to prove himself.
"I'm just looking to make the most of it and not lose it," he said of his starting spot. "It's a pretty big deal to go in there and start 12 games in a season, and that's one of my goals this year."
Here's hoping Pannell does well, reaches his goals and finishes his career on a high note.
But even if that happens, it won't change the biggest problem Penn State consistently has on the offensive line.
The underlying issue is it takes many of the players so long to develop in PSU's system that by the time they finally do, they are down to just one year -- two for a select few -- to be full-time starters.
The unit is constantly turning over two or three positions each year, and the offensive line -- where cohesiveness is key -- is almost always in a state of flux for the half season it takes the guys to get used to playing alongside each other.
This year probably will be no exception, and that's likely to be a big problem with No. 2 Alabama and its fantastic defense visiting Beaver Stadium next week.
It will be a tough task, to say the least, but it also will be an opportunity for Pannell and his fellow linemen to silence the critics by holding their own against the Crimson Tide.
"We have the opportunity to be a very special team," Pannell said, "and I want to do whatever I can and the most I can to be a part of it."
Pannell started the first four games of his sophomore season in 2009 at right tackle, then suffered an ankle injury and missed two games. He didn't crack the starting lineup when he first returned but did replace injured Johnnie Troutman at left guard for the final three games.
Pannell opened last season as the starting left guard, but that lasted only two games and he was replaced by Troutman.
"I think it was all about consistency," Pannell said of bouncing in and out of the starting lineup. "When I was younger I was kind of up and down, still kind of learning everything as I went along, and the consistency wasn't there.
"But I think that's one thing I really tried to work on coming into my senior year is every play try to give my all, [give] my best effort and have great technique."
Pannell has worked himself into position for playing time by dropping 22 pounds, from 330 in the winter down to 308.
"The biggest change was just my eating lifestyle," he said of the weight loss. "Cookies, cakes and pies, stay away from all that stuff."
Whether Pannell can keep the starting job could depend on him showing the kind of toughness that Joe Paterno and the line coaches want to see from the guys up front. Pannell said the coaches are constantly talking about a tougher attitude and showing more aggressiveness.
"It's attitude to be able to stay on a block the whole time until the whistle [blows], be able to finish up blocks, get guys on the ground," Pannell said.
Giving a max effort on every play, that's what the coaches want to see and are demanding of the offensive linemen.
"You've got to have an attitude about you to say, hey, we're going to bring it to you until you don't want any part of it or you just say, hey, I'm done, I quit," Pannell said.
It all sounds good in theory, but until the offensive line proves it can do that, questions will remain about whether it actually can pull it off.
Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CoryGiger on Twitter.