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Spotlight shines on Bucs' offensive line

LAKE BUENA VISTA — Hide the preseason magazines. Disconnect the cable. Plug the ear holes in their helmets. Try anything to keep the Bucs' offensive line from catching wind of all the nice things being said about it.

Talk about expectations.

By nature, offensive linemen prefer to work in the shadows. More than any other position, their success depends on the guy next to them. Wins and losses are their only statistic.

"The last thing you want to do is let these guys get their own press agents and have their own world of compliments," coach Jon Gruden said. "We like to yell at them and keep them normal. They're regular guys, and they get no credit for anything."

But lately, the offensive line has been getting more ink than Jeff Faine's arms.

Faine became the highest-paid center in NFL history when he left the Saints to sign a six-year, $37-million deal with the Bucs in February.

At 27, he is the newest and oldest member of a group that includes Davin Joseph, 24, Arron Sears, 23, Jeremy Trueblood, 25 and Donald Penn, 25.

"On paper, we look good," Joseph said. "We're young, aggressive, smart guys; all kind of cut from the same mold.

"We don't like to lose. We love to win. If we can avoid injuries, if we can play consistently, we can be as good as we want to be."

On the field, the offensive line was, at times, dominant. Tampa Bay finished 11th in the NFL in rushing offense at 117 yards per game despite losing running backs Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman to injuries.

But like many young linemen, they struggled a bit in pass protection. Their 36 sacks allowed tied for 14th most — which isn't bad unless you consider that scrambling quarterback Jeff Garcia avoided many others.

Certainly, the Bucs' investment of high draft picks on the offensive line appears to be paying off. Joseph, a 6-foot-3, 313-pound right guard taken 23rd overall in 2006, has plenty of ability. But like many of his linemates, he has lacked the consistency to be considered a Pro Bowl player.

"This year I think will be my year," Joseph said. "Of course, I'm being optimistic. But consistency is our biggest challenge. Some weeks, we'd run for 200 and something yards against a stellar defense and the next week we'd go on the road and really struggle."

Sears, a 6-3, 319-pound left tackle from Tennessee, was a second-round pick last year and started all 17 games, playing with a sprained ankle in the playoff loss to the Giants.

Several NFL scouts believe Sears has even more upside than Joseph and could beat his teammate to Hawaii.

"I liked several things. The No. 1 thing was his unflappability as a rookie getting thrown in the action," offensive line coach Bill Muir said. "I think the other thing was he's so fundamentally sound. Obviously, that's a credit to the Tennessee football program. He has great instincts for the game. He just gets it. "

Of course, Muir knows how expectations can disappear like a bag of Krystal burgers in his meeting room.

"It's still a work in progress," he said. "Obviously, you can talk about potential and talent, but we've got to do it on the field."

Off the field, there already is a bond that will be tough to break. Joseph and Trueblood, a tackle who was drafted in the second round from Boston College in 2005, have been inseparable since starting as rookies. During the offseason, Trueblood cut out the fried foods, trimmed up and shaved his hair into a mohawk that's growing out again.

When the season ended, he said he was bummed that there were no more games to prepare for. Clearly, that guy gets it, too.

The unheralded one is left tackle Donald Penn, who was undrafted and spent a year on the Vikings' practice squad. He took over in Week 4 after Luke Petitgout's knee injury.

"The thing that impresses me with these guys, at a really, really young age, they're really mature from an NFL standard," Faine said. "Sometimes I have to take a step back and really appreciate that they're playing so well and doing it at a young age.

"They're talking so good about us, so there's going to be a lot of pressure from other defensive lines and defenses that are so-called better offensive lines."

Now if only they can block out the applause.

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>>fast facts

Finally, some stability

The Bucs' most common starting offensive lines and linemen they drafted afterward since winning the Super Bowl:

2003: Roman Oben, Kerry Jenkins, John Wade, Cosey Coleman, Kenyatta Walker

Draft: Jeb Terry (fifth round)

2004: Derrick Deese, Matt Stinchcomb, Wade, Coleman, Walker

Draft: Chris Colmer (third), Dan Buenning (fourth)

2005: Anthony Davis, Buenning, Wade, Sean Mahan, Walker

Draft: Davin Joseph (first), Jeremy Trueblood (second)

2006: Davis, Mahan, Wade, Joseph, Trueblood

Draft: Arron Sears (second), Chris Denman (seventh)

2007: Donald Penn, Sears, Wade, Joseph, Trueblood

Draft: Jeremy Zuttah (third)

2008 (projected): Penn, Sears, Jeff Faine, Joseph, Trueblood

Spotlight shines on Bucs' offensive line 07/30/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 1, 2008 6:59am]
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