UNIVERSITY?PARK?- More so than his size - he appears surprisingly small for the 6-foot-3, 286 pounds he's listed on the roster - the thing that first catches your attention when you see Doug Klopacz is a huge tattoo covering about half of his left arm.
"It's just good vs. evil. I have an angel outside,'' Klopacz said of the meaning of his ink. "I had part of it before I got here as a freshman, and then I added on through the years.''
The tattoo might be symbolic of Klopacz's Penn State football career, coming in as an undersized lineman and battling back from knee surgery to be projected as the Nittany Lions' starting center his senior year.
The art on Klopacz's arm, though, could just as easily be a reflection of Penn State's offensive line this season. The Nittany Lions enter the campaign - which kicks off on Saturday at home against Youngstown State - with proven playmakers at receiver and running back. They have several highly regarded albeit inexperienced quarterbacks.
As so often seems to be the case, the key piece to the puzzle will be the offensive line. It could very well be the difference between Penn State going 6-6 or to a BCS bowl game. And, to hear Nittany Lion coach Joe Paterno at media day, there are a couple of pieces missing.
"We're not very good right now, our offensive line,'' Paterno said, expanding on a comment earlier in the press conference when he said "we've got troubles there.'' "We've got two or three guys that I think can play right now. The others we're going to have to work hard with, and they're going to have to work hard in order to be good enough to handle some of the people we have to play.''
There is some good news up front. Stefen Wisniewski was an All-American at center last season and seems a likely high-round NFL Draft pick in the spring - he'll return to the right guard spot at which he feels most comfortable this season, if things play out the way the Penn State coaches would like. Fellow senior Lou Eliades, who also has a chance to play on Sundays, is sliding over to right tackle after starting every game in 2009 at guard. Eliades is no newcomer to the position, having seen action in all 13 games there backing up Nittany Lion mainstay Dennis Landolt as a sophomore.
Johnnie Troutman emerged as a steady force at left guard last year, starting eight games there after taking over for Matt Stankiewitch before being sidelined by a strained calf against Ohio State. During that stretch, Penn State's sacks allowed per game was cut in half.
Troutman, however, got himself into Paterno's doghouse in the offseason for missing classes and not maintaining his weight - the 6-4, 323-pound junior entered fall practice third on the depth chart, although he's reportedly responded to make it a battle with DeOn'tae Pannell, who started the last three games, for the starting spot.
"He's going to be OK,'' Penn State tailback and Troutman's roommate Stephfon Green said.
The biggest questions surround two players that have been around for awhile but are still looking to make their mark: Klopacz and Quinn Barham, a redshirt junior until-now utility man who has been penciled in as the probable left tackle, where Landolt was first-team all-Big Ten last year.
"We've both been through a lot just to get to this point now, especially Doug, with the knee surgery,'' Barham said. "To go from a backup to at least be able to compete for a chance to start is a great feeling.''
To say Barham has bounced around is putting it mildly. He came to Penn State from North Carolina in 2007 as an under-the radar recruit - in fact, some Lion fans still regard his scholarship offer as an enticement to get prep All-American running back Greg Little to sign with the Lions. Barham started off as a tackle, switched to guard, then to center, then back to guard last year before coming full circle and returning to tackle.
Barham thinks all that movement actually has helped in his development.
"By playing each position, you learn all the other ones. You learn the responsibilities of what the center has to do, or what the guard has to do,'' Barham said. "Just by playing center, I know the whole offense.
"With tackle, you're on an edge all by yourself. I like that responsibility role.''
At 6-3, 298, though, Barham lacks the prototypical size of Big Ten behemoths at the position. There are those skeptical of Barham's ability to handle the role.
Barham acknowledges that, but believes he has other attributes that will make up for it.
"I think I'm quicker. I'm smart. I'm ready. I've worked hard. I've trained,'' Barham said. "I'm not 350 pounds, but I'm going to do a good job.''
Barham's ability to at least hold his own looks very important. Currently, he's being backed up by unproven Mike Farrell and redshirt freshman Nate Cadogan.
Klopacz's development might even be more vital, though, because, if he can't maintain the starting position at center, it would cause ripple effects throughout the line.
While Stankiewitch and Pannell get mentioned as possibilities to start if Klopacz doesn't, the strongest possibility is that Wisniewski would be moved back there. That, in turn, means Paterno would either have to shift Eliades back inside or risk playing a redshirt freshman like John Urschel or Mark Arciadiacono.
However, moving Eliades back to guard creates the same issue of relying on an unproven player at right tackle. The same would happen at left tackle if the coaches would opt to bring Barham back to center.
There seems to be a cautious optimism - a negative person might call it "hope'' - that Klopacz can pull it off.
"He's been a center his whole career here, so he knows the position,'' Eliades said. "He's doing a good job for us.''
Paterno said he thought Klopacz had the ability and was a hard worker but needed to become more consistent.
Klopacz, though, gave the impression of a confident young man who was itching for a chance to show what he could do.
"It feels great to finally know and feel that my time here and the all the work I've put in - the regular workouts, the knee rehab, everything - have finally paid off,'' Klopacz said.
It's been a long road back for Klopacz. He played in six games last year after tearing the ACL in his right knee in a practice early in the 2008 season.
"Everyone has their doubts at some points. But it's those that have the power to push through and say, 'This isn't going to keep me down. This isn't going to stop me,' that's the mindset I had when I was feeling down. That's the mindset I had when I was going through my knee rehab,'' Klopacz said, "and I came out all right.''
Just like Klopacz's tattoo. Now, if only the line play itself follows suit.
"In terms of days into camp and where we're at with time, we're progressing pretty well,'' Klopacz said. "We still have a ways to go to determine the offensive line that we want to become, but I think we're well on our way.''
"As a guy running behind them,'' Green said, "I'm pretty confident that they're going to get the job done.''