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Penn State Steadily Building Elite Depth, Talent Across Offensive Line

When James Franklin took over for the sanction-riddled Nittany Lions in 2014, scholarship restrictions stemming from Bill O’Brien’s two-year stint in Happy Valley hindered the instant progression of the offensive line more than any other position within the roster.

During Franklin’s first year in charge, only seven of the head coach’s 75-allotted scholarships were gifted to offensive linemen. Moreover, at the time, Donovan Smith served as the only tackle on scholarship between the senior, junior, and sophomore classes throughout Franklin’s initial campaign at the helm.

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As a result, Penn State finished the 2014 season ranked No. 124 nationally in sacks allowed with 44 quarterback takedowns, largely at the expense of then-sophomore gunslinger Christian Hackenberg. Although all 85 scholarships were reinstated the following season, the struggles largely held true in 2015.

For the second-straight season, the Nittany Lions allowed 44 sacks for a net loss of nearly 300 yards in the backfield. Without a mobile quarterback to mask the unit’s youth and inexperience, Franklin’s group ranked No. 11 in total offense by scoring just under 24 points per matchup.

Although the Nittany Lions found their footing on offense by capturing a 22-5 run between 2016 and 2017, Matt Limegrover’s offensive lines still lacked two-deep scholarship depth heading into both seasons. While Joe Moorhead’s explosive play-calling style thrived on the high-risk, high-reward model for the majority of his tenure as offensive coordinator, the philosophy proved to be unstable in the absence of himself, Saquon Barkley, and Chris Godwin in 2018.

During Trace McSorley’s final season as the Nittany Lions’ signal-caller, Penn State finally cultivated enough depth to house 11 scholarship players across the trenches on offense. However, in Franklin’s pursuit of annual Big Ten supremacy, having an appropriate level of depth failed to consistently catapult the program over Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and other squads that are typically well-positioned for conference title runs.

Over the last five recruiting cycles, Franklin has been in search of elite offensive linemen to bridge the talent gap between the Nittany Lions and other programs that rarely possess holes up front. Now, for the first time in the modern recruiting era, each of Penn State’s projected starters on the offensive line previously entered the program as blue-chip high school recruits.

The unit, from left to right, consists of Olu Fashanu, Landon Tengwall, Juice Scruggs, Sal Wormley, and Caeden Wallace, who all pledged to Penn State as four-star prospects from 2019 to 2021. With 15 projected offensive linemen on scholarship heading into 2022, featuring nine four-stars, the Nittany Lions’ offensive line appears to have finally reached recovery mode from a decade’s worth of damage.

While depth and talent up front shouldn’t pose a threat to Penn State’s overall offensive success this fall, Phil Trautwein’s currently intact unit lacks the value of in-game experience. Aside from Wallace and Scruggs who boast 29-combined starts, the three younger pieces have started just one game total – coming from Fashanu’s heralded debut in the Outback Bowl.

Despite the modest sample size, both Tengwall and Fashanu have warranted high praise from several metrics utilized in grading play along the offensive line. During Tengwall’s first semblance of action against Rutgers last November, the Maryland native showed his versatility at left tackle in relief of Wallace, who left midway through the first quarter with a lower-body injury.

Tengwall, who is primarily slotted as a guard, showed no signs of unpreparedness while positioned at tackle by allowing zero pressures at the hands of the Scarlet Knights’ pass rush. The versatile prospect continued his stout play into the final two matchups of the season against Michigan State and Arkansas, where he slid back over to his primary spot at left guard.

Based on Tengwall’s impressive pair of performances at guard, the true freshman has steadily picked up his fair share of traction heading into next fall. Less than a month ago, Pro Football Focus nabbed Tengwall as the nation’s most likely guard to break out in 2022. According to PFF, the bruiser’s physical presence, high motor movement, and 32-inch reach have already put him on the radar of several NFL scouts.

Similarly to Tengwall, Fashanu was poised to see action earlier in the season for the Nittany Lions in 2021, but Rasheed Walker’s ability to weather a knee injury that sidelined him for the postseason matchup with Arkansas stonewalled his initial on-field progress.

However, in Fashanu’s first start in the blue and white on New Year’s Day, the former four-star’s sturdy 6’6”, 310-pound frame warranted an 87.5 pass protection grade through Pro Football Focus’ metrics – the highest among all offensive linemen between both squads. Furthermore, Fashanu allowed zero quarterback pressures in the face of Clifford over the span of 63 offensive snaps.

The promise across Trautwein’s offensive trenches doesn’t stop there. After making a full recovery on the heels of a devastating season-ending injury in 2021, Wormely is finally poised to anchor the starting spot at right guard entering his fourth campaign in Happy Valley.

According to Franklin, Wormely was set to leap into a starting guard spot entering 2021, but the pre-season setback created an unintended shuffle between Anthony Whigan and Eric Wilson, who ultimately filled the gap in the Delaware native’s absence. Despite spending the last 10 months nursing an injury, Trautwein feels as though Wormley’s experience within the system will instantly help bolster the otherwise youthful unit.

“This is [Wormley’s] fourth year here at Penn State,” Trautwein said last month. “He’s looking like he’s been here for a while, which is great. Seeing those guys mature, seeing him mature, it’s just part of his growing up, and I’m excited to see how the summer holds out.”

After landing five offensive linemen in the latest recruiting cycle, Trautwein has seemingly kept his foot on the gas in terms of making the position a high priority for the program on the trail.

In 2023, the Nittany Lions currently exhibit the a top 10 recruiting class nationally – largely thanks to Alex Birchmeier and J’ven Williams, who both translate to durable contributors on the offensive line at the next level.

Both Birchmeier and Williams sit as Top-200 recruits at guard and tackle, respectively, entering their senior campaigns. While Penn State has been prone to land highly-touted pairs of four-star staples at wide receiver and linebacker in the same recruiting classes, the Nittany Lions previously lacked the consistency to recruit several talented offensive linemen per class prior to Trautwein’s system overhaul.

Although it seems Franklin and company promise increased results when it comes to offensive line play almost every offseason, the Nittany Lions finally have the means to stack its group among some of the Big Ten’s most talented fronts. And, based on the program’s recent haul of talented prospects from tackle to the inside, the newfound trend should seemingly hold true for the foreseeable future.

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