Penn State Returns Confidence, Experience To Offensive Line
Prior to the Pinstripe Bowl, Penn State’s season concluding 31-30 victory over Boston College in Yankee Stadium, James Franklin said the offensive line had made the most strides of any position group in the extra practices granted to the Nittany Lions as a result of bowl eligibility.
The unit’s performance in the overtime contest backed Franklin’s lofty claim, as the front five put together its most complete game of the year, allowing Christian Hackenberg to toss for Penn State bowl records of 34 completions and 371 yards. The feat silenced many of the concerns that doomed the offensive line for much of last season, including inexperience, inconsistency, and over 40 allowed sacks, an unfortunate school record.
Regardless, the Nittany Lions carry this newfound confidence — and two big-time new enrollees — into the 2015 season.
Penn State entered the 2014 season with only two offensive lineman with starting experience: Miles Dieffenbach and Donovan Smith. They’ll both be gone to start the 2015 season.
Smith, who protected Hackenberg’s blind side at the tackle position, was the most consistent option on a struggling line for much of the year. Minor injuries forced him to miss a start later in the season, but he remained healthy for much of the year, and was by far the line’s most effective contributor. Dieffenbach missed much of the regular season after tearing his ACL, but recovered and returned to the field in early November. He too will now test the waters of professional football.
Angelo Mangiro (guard), Brian Gaia (guard), Derek Dowry (guard), and Wendy Laurent (center) all return significant experience at a multitude of positions. Forced thin due to injuries and lack of scholarships, numerous offensive lineman were needed to play one position one week, then an entirely different one the next.
Mangiro, for example, spent much of the season at center, but also tried his hand at guard. A senior and returning starter, he’ll look to assume a leadership role, and said he’s ready to silence his unit’s critics.
“We’re ready for it, we’re definitely ready for it,” he said earlier this week following Penn State’s seventh spring practice. “It’s year two in the system, for a lot of the guys it’s their second year starting, second year playing.”
Penn State will also benefit from two big — both literally and in terms of importance — new additions to its 2015 roster: 6-foot-7 junior college transfer Paris Palmer, and 6-foot-8 freshman Sterling Jenkins, the top-ranked player in Pennsylvania at the time of his commitment. Expect Palmer, a junior, to play next year. There’s no telling what Franklin, now graced with full scholarships and relative depth on the offensive line, will do with Jenkins, an early enrollee to school.
Biggest Strength: Longevity
It may not come to fruition in 2015, but James Franklin and offensive line coach Herb Hand are quietly building a stellar front five.
The silver lining from last year’s lack of numbers up front is that a slew of underclassmen received valuable experience during in-game situations. Mangiro is this year’s only senior, so almost all of the unit will be around next year. Factor in the addition of Jenkins and Palmer, a host of young reserves, and Connor McGovern in 2016 — the nation’s top-ranked center — and a stellar protection unit is brewing.
Biggest Weakness: Lack of Previous Success
Let’s not get too carried away just yet. Despite the returning starters, experience, and confidence, Penn State’s offensive line really only had one good game last season, and the running and passing that it supported performed less than impressively all year.
Now, it’s losing its two best players. Mangiro, Gaia, and others were forced into the starting role last year. They’ll now be forced into the leadership position. There’s no telling how they’ll fare.
The offensive line, five oft-unrecognizable and far from glamorous workhorses could be the most important unit for Penn State’s offense this year. Hackenberg returns all of his receivers, and Akeel Lynch brings fire to the backfield. If the Nittany Lions’ offensive line can hold up, big things could be in store for the offense.
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