Since the 2014 football season ended, Angelo Mangiro has been ready for questions about the offensive line.
Head coach James Franklin was ready, too. He said the line knows very well of the criticism they’ve faced. He said it’s made the players stronger, and, grinning, dared the crowd of reporters at Big Ten Media Days to write more “nasty articles” about them for bulletin-board material.
It’s a position that’s “been discussed ad nauseam” according to Franklin, who said the position group definitely has “a chip on their shoulders” at Penn State’s media day last week.
Mangiro, now a veteran on the line, understands why the questions are being asked, frankly.
After a season that sometimes seemed to allow pass rushers through the very green line at will, resulting in 44 sacks on quarterback Christian Hackenberg and a rushing attack that ranked last in the Big Ten with 101.9 yards per game, Mangiro is resigned to the fact that inquiries about the position group’s improvement await him at every turn. He knows they looked bad at times — he was there, after all.
Actually, he was everywhere.
Mangiro and his 6-foot-3, 320-pound frame was stretched thinner than he would’ve liked last season, playing up to four positions intermittently on a line that lacked depth and suffered from injuries. He even changed positions in the midst of games, including a notable three times in Penn State’s 30-13 win over Temple last November, during which he shifted from left guard to center to right guard to fill holes left by injuries. There were times he was moving to a new position every other Penn State offensive series.
That’s enough to run a starter ragged, especially as there was little relief to be found in practice.
“We had to adjust the way we practiced (last year),” Mangiro said. “At first ... guys that were healthy were taking a lot of reps. Which is good, we needed it, but we started getting banged up a little bit, and that’s not good.”
Franklin said in Chicago that Penn State is now playing at least two-deep (and sometimes three-deep) at every position, and said at media day that the staff wants to keep players at their natural positions “as much as possible,” which should help with the group’s long-term endurance.
“I think one of our issues that was compounded last year is that we weren’t able to (leave players at their natural position),” he said. “You guys have heard me say this before, I think it was the Ohio State game; we lose our left tackle, Donovan (Smith). So our right tackle goes to left tackle. Our center goes to right tackle, and the backup center comes in. It’s a lot of moving parts for guys that are still trying to get comfortable.”
The addition of graduate transfer offensive guard Kevin Reihner should help, too.
Reihner had played on the other side of the country since 2011, seeing some time at Colorado but getting most of his reps at Pac-12 powerhouse Stanford.
His familiarity with Penn State, however, draws from a stellar high school career at Scranton Prep and a Nittany Lions pedigree — his father, George, was a lineman at Penn State from 1974-77 and his uncle, John, was a kicker from 1972-75.
Reihner, a 6-foot-3, 315-pound guard, is football savvy with an ornery streak.
“Handsomeness, probably right away,” he deadpanned, when asked how he could contribute to the line. “They were struggling with that.”
Jokes aside, Reihner has played a heck of a lot of football in his collegiate career. He said he has the conceptual aspect of Penn State’s offense down already. Players are coming to him with questions about his own experience at Stanford with quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Kevin Hogan and the Cardinal’s impressive line, which helped the offense rack up 405 yards per game in 2013 and 388 yards per game in 2014 (Penn State averaged 335.3 yards of offense per game in 2014).
Franklin said the addition of Reihner’s voice and experience also has helped him as a coach.
“I’m really interested to see how it translates on the field,” Franklin said. “Whenever we hire a new person or whenever we recruit somebody or whenever we transfer in somebody like that, I always bring him into my office and ask him what their thoughts are. You have fresh eyes coming in with a different perspective.”
After Wednesday’s practice, however, Franklin said he’d so far seen bigger things out of Wendy Laurent, who will compete with Reihner for reps behind Mangiro or start if Mangiro shifts outside at any point. He said Laurent was “ahead of Reihner,” at this point.
“Playing experience in general has helped (Laurent),” Franklin said Wednesday. “He looks like a different guy and is fighting for a starting job.”
There is still work to do, especially at the open left tackle position left vacant by Donovan Smith’s exit to the NFL. The important thing for Penn State is there are options that weren’t so readily available to them before.
Junior college transfer Paris Palmer and redshirt freshman Chance Sorrell are competing for the position, and Franklin said both need to be developed. Redshirt sophomore Andrew Nelson is also returning as a potential impact player on the line. Franklin said Nelson could see “75 percent” of his reps at right tackle, but also said he has “no doubt” Nelson could also shift over to left tackle as needed. Guard Brian Gaia will enter his second full year at the position after shifting over from defensive tackle in 2014.
The line has held player-run meetings on Mondays to watch film and try to expedite the learning curve they face, after which Mangiro said Palmer came to him to go over positioning and extra film. The veteran said he was impressed with Palmer’s growth and desire to learn, and has seen a difference in Palmer from the raw player that played with Penn State for the first time in the Blue-White Game.
Now that there is a relative wealth of veteran experience on the line, Franklin has hopes for the continued growth of the group as a whole.
“I think having all that returning experience, they’re going to be able to play so much more confident and decisive,” he said. “Obviously, what we’ve got to do is speed up the maturation process, not only of Paris and Chance ... but then also the maturation process of the unit as a whole and (get) all five of those guys working well together and feeling comfortable and being able to anticipate what guys are going to do.”