Dear Mr. Transfer Portal, Uncle De-Committed, and that pesky old cousin of ours, Panic, please take a seat, you have all been officially relegated to the off-season that once was. Big Ten Media Days in Chi-Town have come and gone as the door slams shut on the drama that’s enveloped us since early January. The sweet sound of pads thumping on a hot summer day is all that stands between us and the 2019 kickoff. With that said, it’s high time for our annual Lions Pride Position Previews and I’ve got a fair warning for everyone: I’m going to hit you with the hard stuff first. So buckle up and hang on tight. I promise things will get better as we roll along! On deck today as proof, the offensive line, and things are just as up-in-the-air this summer as they’ve been since we first embarked upon this journey together with head coach James Franklin.
Over the past several years I admit to getting a little cute with the name tweaking for the men that make a living in the trenches. We’ve had the Big Handsomes, the Road Graders, and just last summer I proudly rolled out the Pancake Makers. Consider it my own little way of trying to rally a position that took the biggest hit during the ‘sanction era.’ Like all of you, I was totally confident in last year’s respective O-Line being more stable, and yes, better than the year before. At its low point sometime around 2015, there truly was nowhere to go but up. Although there have been improvements scattered about, this position group as a whole just hasn’t seemed to make the leap all the others have. It’s not sour grapes on my part, just the hard-nosed truth. In fact, coming into 2018 with all the returning experience and added depth, it was almost a given they would steamroll the competition, only to wind up with a season littered with more of those head-scratching moments we’ve become all too familiar with. In my opinion, it was not that infamous fourth-and-five call that lost the Whiteout last September as much as it was our lines on both sides of the ball getting manhandled in the fourth quarter.
With three starters gone on the offensive side as we step into 2019, something has got to give if this team has any intention on making another run at the Big Ten Championship. Personally, I’m at the point where I figured it was time to hang up my quest to find cute little nicknames and just revert back to the old school, all guts, no glory name O-Lines have garnered since the days of leather helmets and no facemasks. Hence the return today of ‘The Big Uglies.’ Not that I have a darn thing to do with anything they do on the field but I think we’re all at the point where anything might help, right? All is not lost mind you, as FrankLion and position coach Matt Limegrover have been busting their rumps restocking the shelves at a fever pitch over the last few years, it’s just that the total payoff has yet to be witnessed. In 2019, Steven Gonzalez passed up a shot at the NFL to return for his senior season and is hands down the anchor of this new edition, along with center Michael Menet, who more than held his own as a first-time starter a year ago. Will Fries returns at left tackle but has much to prove as he never quite solidified his role as the starter in 2018. With Chasz Wright gone, the job is Fries for the taking and much of our hopes for a new and improved version hinge on him being able to grab it.
On the other side, all eyes are on redshirt freshman Rasheed Walker, a behemoth of a human being, as he gives Penn State the most intriguing option for replacing Ryan Bates on the blindside and by all accounts, he’s settled into the role well. Simply put though, if neither he nor Fries can step up and be the ‘road graders’ we’ve been hoping for, it could easily be another case of same ol’, same ol’ in Happy Valley. On the flip side, if they can finally take the bull by the horns, the rest of the Big Ten will be staring in the face of big trouble when they lock horns with us! Quite frankly, it’s way overdue.
Sophomore Mike Miranda and redshirt freshman CJ Thorpe have been in a heated battle for the right to fill the shoes Connor McGovern left behind at guard, and word has been brewing all off-season that either one of them are guaranteed to bring a healthy dose of nasty to the table. Another much-needed quality we desperately need to find again. JUCO transfer Anthony Whigan immediately garners playing time in the rotation and Des Holmes, Bryce Effner, and senior Hunter Kelley provide solid depth. True freshmen Cadean Wallace and Sal Wormley already have the massive size to compete for playing time if needed.
So here we are again, with another O-Line on our hands that has potential. This time around, I’m not being fooled by any of the preseason hype or lack of it, for that matter. Depth has returned so that’s no longer an issue, nor an excuse. Considering the legacies that all the Nittany Lions that manned those trenches over our long history have left behind (two of whom are on this year’s ballot to be inducted into the College Football Hall Of Fame in Jeff Hartings and Steve Wisniewski) it’s high time we somehow go back to being the man handlers, not the ones getting handled with a big game on the line. Until we get back to that level, it just might continue to be the difference between the frustration of one-point losses and maintaining double-digit leads heading into crunch time.