Training camp is officially underway for Penn State, and the Nittany Lions’ annual media day kicks off Saturday.
The season is getting closer. So all this week, we’ve looked at the biggest question marks facing the blue-and-white — from Miles Sanders replacing Saquon Barkley, to the situation at linebacker, the depth at defensive tackle and who’ll step up with TE Mike Gesicki’s departure.
Now, we’re on to our fifth and final question:
Can the offensive line finally be a position of strength?
Ever since James Franklin landed in Happy Valley, the offensive line has been the Achilles’ heel of this team.
In terms of tackles for loss allowed, the mainstream indicator of the unit’s success, Penn State’s national rankings since 2014 have been the following: 118, 111, 94 and 112.
Penn State still managed to thrive on offense the past two seasons with former OC Joe Moorhead and Madden create-a-player Saquon Barkley. But that’s not exactly a sustainable model for success.
Still, there’s tangible reason for optimism this season. And we break it down by taking a closer look at the main difference from past seasons, the noted improvement and the depth chart.
In a word: Experience.
Franklin has consistently said that, ideally, offensive linemen shouldn’t start until their third year with the program. And that mind-set was a luxury Franklin knew he couldn’t follow early on in his tenure. Heck, he couldn’t even field two full OL units at his first Blue-White Game.
This year is finally different. Every starter will be a redshirt sophomore or older, and there’ll be just one new starter on the offensive line. (Technically, even with the loss of Brendan Mahon, five starters return since two tackles split time last season in the face of injuries and started 18 combined games.)
That means 83 starts are returning to the team this season, with four of Penn State’s most experienced linemen boasting between 14 and 22 starts under their respective belts. That means better chemistry, a better feel for road games, an increased knowledge of the playbook and more time to get physically stronger.
“We’ve been around for like three years now,” left guard Steven Gonzalez said in June. “It was good for us to ... bond together as a unit, and I feel like we’re a better unit now at this point.”
Experience may be a key ingredient to success, but it’s not the entire recipe.
There needs to be talent, growth and potential, or you’re just left with Maryland’s 2015 quarterback situation. Fortunately for Penn State, that’s not an issue — and the end of last season proved it.
In the Nittany Lions’ first Big Ten game, against Iowa, the offensive line allowed 11 tackles-for-loss. In their final Big Ten game, against Maryland, they allowed three. Iowa ranked No. 98 nationally on defense in tackles for loss, while Maryland was No. 99.
In Penn State’s first eight games against Power-5 opponents, the offensive line allowed more tackles for loss than the opponent’s season average on seven occasions (e.g. Northwestern’s defense averaged 7.2 tackles-for-loss per game but had 12 against Penn State). But in the last three games that was flipped: Washington, Maryland and Nebraska had fewer TFLs against Penn State than their respective season averages.
It was impossible to miss the improvement. Will Fries earned a spot on Pro Football Focus’ Big Ten Team of the Week after his November performance against Nebraska. Gonzalez was a staple on PFF’s end-of-season All-Big Ten team. And despite missing three full games due to injury, Ryan Bates was third-team all-conference.
Let’s touch on what we know first: Bates will start at left tackle, Gonzalez will return to left guard, and Chasz Wright/Fries will battle at right tackle.
The two other starters will almost certainly be Connor McGovern and first-year starter Michal Menet, a redshirt sophomore who’s being called up due to Mahon’s graduation. The only question is whether McGovern will remain at center, or whether Menet will take over that position with McGovern sliding to right guard.
Either way, that’s a lot of experience returning. Menet is the new face, but he was a five-star recruit who teammates have consistently raved about. When asked who’s improved the most this offseason, Menet’s name has routinely been mentioned.
Behind the starters, there’s talent but not experience. Redshirt freshman C.J. Thorpe has been praised for his aggressiveness and nasty streak, while fellow redshirt freshmen Des Holmes and Mike Miranda have also earned positive reviews. Redshirt sophomore Alex Gellerstedt is also one to watch.
The scary part here: Penn State should lose just one player next offseason from its two-deep in Wright. Everyone else has at least one more year of eligibility after 2018. So if you think this season is bright, the future is even better.