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Penn State Football’s Budding Offensive Line Depth Prepped To Shine

It’s a pretty good time to be a Penn State running back.

Penn State football has been praised for strong depth and talent across its roster early and often heading into the 2023 season. James Franklin is set to unleash a top rushing tandem, a former five-star quarterback, one of the best cornerbacks in the nation, and a linebacker corps that can put up impressive numbers. Still, one of the groups garnering the most attention is the Nittany Lions’ offensive line.

The position group that few like to talk about could provide the extra boost that the Nittany Lions need. Penn State is bringing four starters back from last year’s offensive line to its lineup in 2023, as well as two more players with starting experience.

That kind of experience that Penn State brings back isn’t just talent, but it’s also strong depth. The group’s depth was one of the things Franklin’s been most excited about, especially as the team irons out final starting spots before the season begins.

“I would say everywhere I have three guys [that] can go in and make a play,” offensive line coach Phil Trautwein said. “You have enough guys that you can probably play with two lines.”

Few players will feel the strength, or weakness, of the offensive line’s play like Penn State’s backfield. With under a month until the season opener against West Virginia, the Nittany Lions’ top returning rusher from last campaign, Nick Singleton, feels confident in his offensive line’s ability to hold strong upfront.

“The [offensive] line looks good this season so far,” Singleton said. “That depth is really helping us out. It means a lot.”

Penn State is in the midst of replacing one starter from the 2022 season, center Juice Scruggs, who was selected by the Houston Texans in the 2023 NFL Draft. Scruggs, a five-year offensive lineman and two-year starter, left a hole in the center of the offensive line.

Though an official starter hasn’t been named for the position, sixth-year senior Hunter Nourzad seems set to take over the role in his last season of collegiate football. He happened to be the first name out of Trautwein’s mouth when asked about Scruggs’ replacement and takes starting reps during practice.

“I don’t know if it was [the coaches’] plan, but he was really good with, not just me, with everybody at helping anybody with what you want,” Nourzad said of Scruggs. “Whenever I had a question, even if it was during practice about playing center or the technique and stuff we had to do, he was always right there with a great answer.”

Scruggs was both an important player in the Nittany Lions’ system and an important leader on the roster. But Penn State seems to have already found Scruggs’ locker room replacement in the form of fourth-year blindside protector Olu Fashanu. Fashanu was expected to leave Penn State for the NFL as a potential top-10 draft selection after the 2022 season but said he stayed with the program to play an extra year with his “brothers.”

Fashanu was voted to be one of Penn State’s six captains by his teammates, elevating him to one of the faces of the team as one of the Nittany Lions’ most-valued players. It’s a role that he takes seriously.

“The most important thing is getting the young guys acclimated here,” Fashanu said. “When I was a freshman, having the older guys just be there for me whenever I have any questions, making me feel comfortable, helped me a lot in my development. So, for me to do the same thing for our younger guys, that’s how I feel like I should step up and be a leader.”

Penn State’s offensive line has one strong advantage in preparing for the 2023 season: the strength of the defensive line it practices against.

The Nittany Lions possessed one of the nation’s most potent defensive lines in its latest go-around, ranking No. 15 nationally in sacks amongst Power Five groups. While Penn State lost starters PJ Mustipher and Nick Tarburton after the 2022 season, the group is still expected to have a strong upcoming season.

“What we like to say is iron sharpens iron,” Nourzad said. “Getting to go up against these guys every day is definitely going to be beneficial for us in the long run.”

Penn State isn’t cutting its offensive line any slack in fall practices, either. Franklin said that he has instituted a new rule that he took from a visit to the New England Patriots, where any player that gets called offsides on a rep is replaced in the drill, and must run a full lap around the field. Players hate it, and Franklin loves it.

Fashanu enters the 2023 season with high expectations pinned to his name as a potential high first-round draft selection to the NFL. But with a season looming, he and his teammates are trying to avoid the noise and focus on the games ahead.

“We know right now just to block all the voices outside of the building and just keep everything inside the building,” Fashanu said. “And we know that if we just stay in the moment, stay present, stay consistent in our craft, and get 1% better every day, we’ll be all good.”

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About the Author

Joe Lister

Joe is a junior journalism major at Penn State and an associate editor at Onward State. He covers Penn State football, and enjoys yelling on Twitter about Philadelphia/Penn State sports. If you want to find him, Joe's usually watching soccer with his shirt off or at the gym with his shirt on. Please send all positive affirmations and/or hate mail toward him on Twitter (iamjoelister) or via email ([email protected]).

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