Penn State’s Current Offensive Line Struggles Point Toward Brighter Days Ahead
Anyone who’s watched Penn State the past two seasons is aware of the much-maligned offensive line. The unit allowed Christian Hackenberg to be sacked 63 times in the previous 19 games, and those struggles only continued last Saturday night against Ohio State when the group saw Hackenberg put on the ground another five times. Generally, the problems along the offensive front stem back to the s-word — sanctions. For the most part, that can’t be argued against, but the severity of the poor play goes far beyond the sanctions.
Recruiting misses are going to happen. Not every recruit is going to pan out — especially for offensive linemen — but Penn State’s problems last year and this year can be traced back all the way to the 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes. From those classes, the Nittany Lions brought in nine offensive linemen. Six of those recruits — Thomas Ricketts, Khamrone Kolb, Alex Mateas, Luke Graham, Ryan Nowicki, and Anthony Alosi — didn’t even finish their careers at Penn State, leaving Miles Dieffenbach, Donovan Smith, and Angelo Mangiro as the only upperclassmen options to protect Hackenberg. That type of attrition is essentially a stake through the heart of a program, because even if players like Ricketts or Kolb aren’t All-Big Ten caliber players, they will at least provide veteran depth. Instead there was no depth, and it’s why James Franklin — out of desperation — needed to depend upon two redshirt freshmen (Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson) and two former defensive tackles (Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey) to anchor the offensive line.
Quick fixes along the offensive front are few and far between, so if a program gets behind the eight ball like Penn State did, it’s going to take years to rebuild the depth. Fortunately, the rebuild is already in motion, but it’s tough to predict when the offensive line’s play will improve to the level that’s expected. While Penn State fans read similar stories this previous offseason about the improved play up front, next year really could be the year that the unit isn’t quite so dreadful. Every projected starter — Paris Palmer, Andrew Nelson, Brendan Mahon, Brian Gaia, and Derek Dowrey or Wendy Laurent — will either be a redshirt junior or a redshirt senior. Gaia, Mahon, and Nelson will all be three-year returning starters. Palmer will have a year under his belt, and a much needed offseason to add more weight to his long frame. This might not mean all that much when fans have watched these same players struggle for the past two seasons, but experience is extremely valuable along the offensive line.
Looking past next year, Franklin has clearly made it a priority to bring in offensive line help. In 2014, he brought in Chance Sorrell, Brendan Brosnan, Noah Beh, and Chasz Wright. In 2015, he brought in Sterling Jenkins, Ryan Bates, Steven Gonzalez, and the aforementioned Paris Palmer as a junior college transfer. In the 2016 recruiting class, he already has four linemen committed — Michal Menet, Connor McGovern, Will Fries, and Alex Gellerstedt — and could look to add on more.
While it’s become tiresome to watch Hackenberg get taken down just seconds into the play, or to see the Nittany Lions get stuffed on a third down run, Penn State fans should realize that this is unfortunately part of the process of rebuilding the program. James Franklin and Herb Hand both proved at Vanderbilt that they know what they’re doing, so as difficult as it may be, I urge you to continue to trust the process because the benefits should be just around the corner.