By: Thomas Frank Carr
Forget about the competition at receiver.
Forget about Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley’s Heisman campaigns.
The biggest offensive question and hot button issue is, wait for it… The offensive line.
In the past five years there hasn’t been a single conversation about the Penn State offense that hasn’t centered in some way around the lack of depth, talent, or experience along the offensive line for Penn State Football. The Nittany Lions just simply didn’t have the number of scholarships to replenish the talent at those five positions.
Now, coming out of the sanctions era into the most promising year in the past decade, The Nittany Lions have a collection of talent in the front guard on offense that we have not seen under James Franklin. But it’s not just about who starts, it’s about where they start.
Today we’ll look at the best case scenarios, the most likely outcome, and some wildcards along the way for who will be playing the majority of snaps in the starting five for Penn State this fall.
Best Case Scenario: Bates Moves Back Inside
|Ryan Bates||Connor McGovern||Michael Menet||Chaz Wright|
There is some ‘pie in the sky’ optimism going on here. First is the idea that a redshirt freshman Will Fries would have the type of camp that would give the offensive staff enough confidence in him to allow him to start at one of the most important and difficult positions in football. Last year the Nittany Lions had four starting left tackles before Ryan Bates was stuck with, and ultimately succeeded at the job.
Could Fries manage?
Head Coach James Franklin talked several times about burning his or fellow freshman Michael Menet’s redshirts due to injuries along the line. At 6-6, Fries has the prototypical size for the position but his ability is relatively unknown to anyone outside the Penn State staff. Fries would have to wow Franklin and line coach Matt Limegrover in order to beat out Ryan Bates for the position.
If he did, or if Brendan Mahon were to return to mid-season form from last year, it would allow the Nittany Lions to move Ryan Bates inside to left guard. Bates is an incredibly talented lineman, and barring a major surprise, will be the team’s best lineman for the 2nd year in a row. His job at left tackle last year was so impressive that he will likely remain there for this season as well. However, moving him back into guard would make him an All-Big 10 candidate and give the Nittany Lions a solid 1-2 punch with center Connor McGovern.
It would also ease the pressure on the coaching staff to play a young lineman before they want to. Menet was held out last year to save his redshirt, but will figure heavily into the starting rotation this year. True Freshman C.J. Thorpe and Mike Miranda also could figure into the starting lineup if they prove they can handle the transition to college the way McGovern did last year.
James Franklin likes to rotate players at right guard to give experience to young players while having the stability of a veteran. If Bates can kick inside, it would allow him to do that with a veteran like Steven Gonzalez or Andrew Nelson (if he’s moved inside).
Chaz Wright did a solid job at right tackle at the end of last year, but still needs to improve his footwork and foot speed if he wants to take the next step as a tackle.
So there’s the dream lineup. However, the reality is more likely a version of this:
Let’s be clear, that is by no means a bad starting five. Also, unless Mahon or Nelson can regain a starting spot this fall, the Nittany Lions will likely have two freshmen in the lineup once again. As of yet, nobody knows what Mike Miranda, Michael Menet, or Will Fries are capable of.
While optimism for the offense is abundant this fall, I have some doubts. Until I see what combination of offensive linemen the Nittany Lions roll out, I won’t be confident in predicting a huge jump for the Nittany Lions output in 2017.
Then again Trace, Saquon and Co. put up monster numbers last year and the offensive line had more combinations than a Rubix Cube.