When Keith Dorney was young, the most anonymous job in all of sport was offensive lineman. Now it is likely that, for the first time, a blocker will be the first player chosen in the NFL draft. That player might well be Dorney.

"And it was four years ago, almost to the day, that I realized I belonged among the very good players," the Penn State tackle said today. "Against Alabama, too. I was a freshman, a tight end who did nothing but block, and that first (Sugar Bowl) play remains vivid.

"I remember taking my stance, staring across the line at those great Alabama defensive players and saying to myself: 'I'm here, I've arrived.' That was when things really came together. That was when I really got into football."

Once it was said that the safest place for a fugitive to hide would be in the offensive line of an NFL team. No longer. Now veteran line-men who coveted recognition sometimes regret it, because the notice usually only follows one of their sins, motion or holding.

And the collegiate Dorneys, the very best players, are penalized by being forced to play for bad teams. It is a fate he accepts, along with the money such status brings, if the Buffalo Bills choose him No. 1 or someone else picks him high in the draft.

"It's a good system, the draft," he said. "And although I've been accustomed to winning at State I know what it's like to lose. I can handle it. In fact, something like that would be a challenge.

"You go into most games not supposed to win, so you play with reckless abandon, with nothing to worry about. It's when you get to the top that you have to worry."

At the moment, Dorney and Penn State are at the top, unbeaten and ranked No. 1. They seem anything but worried.

"If we lose (to second-ranked Alabama on Monday)," Coach Joe Paterno said late today, "we'll have no excuses. We're healthy and the practices this week have been the best I've ever seen in all my years at Penn State.

"Alabama is going to have to show us it can move the ball on our defense. And I think most people understimate our offense. We're a bigger team -- and we believe we're a better team than Alabama.

"But that's why we play the game -- to see if that's so."

Dorney is a major reason for Paterno's confidence. He also is a major reason quarterback Chuck Fusina finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting, and a major reason the Lions have lost only nine games during his four years as a letterman

He was his present size, 6-foot-5 in the ninth grade. He was just 30 pounds under his present weight of 257 as a senior in high school. Most serious football schools offered him scholarships. He chose State, in part, because he was not totally devoted to football.

"Anybody, and that included Maryland, that had a football dorm was out," he said. "I honestly did not think my future was football. I think that anyone at that age who put all his eggs in one basket, who thinks nothing but the NFL, is cocky."

And foolish.

"Now I'm committed to the pros, of course. But I don't see myself staying beyond 10 or so years, because there's so much beyond football. I'd like to have enough money so I wouldn't have to worry about money."

Until Monday, the most important moment in Dorney's athletic life came in the final game of this season, on fourth and two from the four-yard line against arch-rival Pitt that produced the winning touchdown.

"I Left, 40 Pitch," he said, recalling the play. "I had a tough block, at a linebacker, and I dived at him, just caught his feet with my helmet and that turned out to be enough.

"That and the good blocks everybody else threw. When he (halfback Mike Guman) hit the end zone, I was about the first one to get there and celebrate. And after the game I really let go.

"Usually, I sit by my locker and try to be cool, although I'm running wild inside. After Pitt, a team we simply don't like, I couldn't contain it. I hope I get another chance tomorrow."