Countdown To Blue-White: Offensive Line Attempts To Turn The Corner
Penn State fans expected the offensive line to be significantly improved heading into the 2015 season. Instead, it became apparent by the second half of the Temple game that the offensive line would still be a major hindrance to the unit’s success over the course of the season. But with spring practice underway in Happy Valley, signs point toward this season beginning to click along the offensive front.
Only seniors Angelo Mangiro and lightly-used Kevin Reihner leave the group, so experience is no longer an issue. Brian Gaia will be a three-year starter, and while at times he was overwhelmed physically at guard, he’ll be moving to what should be a more natural position at center. Although Gaia might make a notable mental lapse here or there, he’s generally looked at as one of the leaders of the offensive line. He’ll now be in charge of making pre-snap calls, giving the Nittany Lions a veteran presence in the middle.
Next to Gaia is where things get interesting. Derek Dowrey and Brendan Mahon have each started multiple games over the previous two seasons, and while the duo looks to be the early favorites at left and right guard, both are far from locks to start in 2016. Highly-touted 2015 signee Ryan Bates — after receiving plenty of praise on the scout team last season — had a terrific winter in the weight room where he finally broke the 300-pound mark. His lack of strength was one of the few things holding him back, so expect for him to be right in the thick of things this spring at either guard position.
Bates isn’t alone though. Fellow 2015 signee Steven Gonzalez also received praise from the coaches while on the scout team. The 6-foot-4, 339-pound guard obviously has tremendous size, and might play with the nastiest mean streak on the team. His toughness could help a group that was blown off the ball in short-yardage situations way too many times the previous two years.
Penn State appears to be more secure at tackle with Paris Palmer and Andrew Nelson returning at left and right tackle, respectively. Still, this spring will be important for both players for a couple of reasons. Nelson has had trouble staying healthy in the past, dealing with a number of knee ailments during his tenure. A healthy spring is important for the redshirt junior.
As for Palmer, despite heading into his senior season, he’s still an extremely raw player. Transitioning from JUCO to the Big Ten was a major adjustment, and I think that showed in his improvement from the Temple game to the last game of the season. Another off-season is big for him, as he continues to add strength and becomes increasingly comfortable protecting the quarterback’s blindside.
The Nittany Lions’ lack of depth on the offensive line was never more prevalent than when guards Brendan Mahon and Angelo Mangiro were forced to kick out to tackle if an injury occurred. This season, new offensive line coach Matt Limegrover will have more bodies to play as redshirt sophomores Chance Sorrell and Noah Beh are second on the depth chart behind the starters. Both players should be physically ready to play, and if the injury bug bites again, the offensive line won’t be subjected to the constant shuffling it endured in 2015.
Penn State’s struggles along the offensive front since James Franklin’s arrival two years ago are no secret. The group has allowed 83 sacks the previous two seasons and had trouble opening up many holes in the run game, qualifying as one of the worst offensive lines in the nation. But with Herb Hand moving onto Auburn and Limegrover coming over from Minnesota — along with an influx of talented sophomores and freshmen — the Nittany Lions could finally begin to turn the corner on what’s been Penn State’s Achilles’ heel during the Franklin tenure.
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