Let’s get this out of the way, someone’s in trouble this year and it won’t be us. There is danger looming ahead deep inside the trenches for opposing D-linemen and defenses. Gone are the days of pushing Penn State around. No more stacking the box. No more ears pinned back picking on a helpless quarterback. Nope, those days are ancient history. We begin our preseason position previews with a dire warning to all that tangle with their hands in the dirt. Make way for the Road Graders that wear blue and white or you might just find yourself on the wrong end of a pancake!
Of course, we’re talking the O-line and folks, this is not the version that got caught blocking each other or the one that gave up well over 40 sacks just a couple years ago. One of James Franklin’s highest priorities upon arriving in Happy Valley was building depth along the sanction-depleted O-line and today, depth is oozing at the seams. An O-Line that could barely fill a first-team in 2014 is now a full three deep and has a host of freshmen waiting in the wings. It’s a line that lost only one starter from a season ago, center Brian Gaia, and is chock full of underclassmen chomping at the bit.
At tackle, lone seniors Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon are both coming off injury shortened seasons, but all accounts point to both of them being ready to roll come September 2nd when Akron comes to town. Mammoth reserve Chasz Wright filled in without missing a beat down the stretch and through the Rose Bowl last season. That big game experience will serve him well if the injury bug strikes again. The former No. 1 ranked player in Pennsylvania, Sterling Jenkins, stands a monstrous 6’8” and is up to 328lbs. Jenkins, a redshirt sophomore, came in raw and was looked at as a project, but now appears ready to make a strong push in the rotation. The staff spent weeks debating whether to pull the redshirt off Will Fries towards the end of 2016 but ultimately decided against it thanks to the surprise play of Wright. He now enters the mix, along with fellow redshirt freshman Alex Gellerstandt, and both add more depth as true tackles.
The departure of Gaia left a hole at center and one of last year’s freshman phenoms, Connor McGovern, who started most of last season at guard, was moved into the position this spring. He has a firm lock on the job for the duration of his career. At guard the other phenom, Ryan Bates, returns after being named a freshman All-American in 2016. Highly touted redshirt freshman Michael Menet and sophomore Steven Gonzalez, who just set a Lift For Life record by benching 225lbs 38 times, seem in position to battle it out for the empty guard spot vacated by McGovern’s move to center. True freshman and early enrollee Mike Miranda, along with sophomores Hunter Kelly and Zach Simpson, are all in a dogfight for a spot in the rotation. CJ Thorpe, Des Holmes, and Rob Martin are highly ranked incoming freshmen, but expected redshirts given the amount of depth now stockpiled.
A few years ago the cupboard was empty. The O-line position hit hardest by the NCAA sanctions had been flatlined. Franklin immediately went to work restocking the shelves and as we enter 2017, depth and talent has resurfaced in the trenches. O-line coach Matt Limegrover took over last season and immediately made an impact. This is no longer the bumbling, stumbling bunch that had us cringe with every sack. These guys are mean, nasty, and play with a chip on their shoulder. They’re road graders that have eased the load on Saquon’s shoulders by opening holes as wide as the sea. We all learned a valuable lesson as we hobbled through the beginning of the FrankLion era; it all begins and ends inside the trenches. As Penn State sets forth to defend their Big Ten Championship, the 2017 Nittany Lion Road Graders are ready to rumble and run D-lines over like a mack truck!