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Spring Football Preview: Offensive Line

On April 18, the Penn State football team will take the field for their annual Blue/White scrimmage. In the midst of spring practice, and headed into the spring game, we'll be taking a closer look at all of the position groups. Up next: Offensive Line

So, this happened last year.

No, seriously.  Penn State's offensive line has been much maligned over the better part of the past fifteen years,[1] but seeing the starting guard pull into the starting right tackle was something out of a Bad News Bears movie.

But hope springs eternal, Penn Staters, and despite losing two long tenured starters to graduation (and hopefully the NFL), the Nittany Lions look forward to continuing to build an offensive line that harkens back to the days of Rivera, Hartings, Greeley, Conlin, and Johnson.  Or at least one that's able to keep Christian Hackenberg upright.

Key Departures: Donovan Smith, Miles Dieffenbach

Penn State's offensive line departures appear, at first glance, to be very troubling for a team that had difficulty sustaining drives and finding consistency.   After all, both Smith and Dieffenbach were tremendously experienced hands at their respective positions on the line.  Smith, a 6'6, 340 pound mountain of a left tackle, started 31 games for the Nittany Lions after his redshirt year, and declared for the NFL Draft with one year of eligibility remaining.  Dieffenbach started 26 games at guard in three years for the Nittany Lions, and heading into his senior season was poised to be an All-Big Ten performer.

Unfortunately, fate and circumstance make both losses far easier for the team to bear.  Twenty-three of Dieffenbach's 26 starts occurred in 2012 and 2013, where he started 11 and 12 games, respectively.  Last March, however, Dieffenbach tore his ACL and was shelved for most of his senior season.  Although he returned late in the year and started the final two games of the regular season and the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College, the team was forced to adjust with younger, less experienced players for the majority of last year.

Smith, on the other hand, is a member of the All-World Potential Team.  Proclaimed the next Levi Brown since he set foot on campus, Smith is physically gifted and was expected to produce at the highest of levels at the toughest of positions throughout his Penn State career.  At his best, Smith was a force to be reckoned with, protecting Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg's blindsides and clearing running lanes for Zack Zwinak, Mike Zordich, and Bill Belton.  More often than not, though, Smith was a microcosm of the problems on offense - inconsistent, nicked up, and (occasionally) flat out beaten by opposing defenders.  He struggled to keep his weight down last year, which affected his lateral mobility and his pass protection.  He leaves State College with a chance to become a solid pro player if he can put all of the pieces together.

Likely Starters: Paris Palmer, Brendan Mahon, Angelo Mangiro, Brian Gaia, and Andrew Nelson

Even with Smith and Dieffenbach gone, the offensive line that will take the field this Saturday looks surprisingly similar to the one that took the field for last year's season opener in Dublin.

Angelo Mangiro anchors the line at center.  The fifth year senior from Roxbury, New Jersey started all thirteen games last season, and played each position on the line at least once.  Mangiro showed his versatility last year, and though his best position (and most likely come fall camp) may actually be guard, he will be counted on to provide much needed experience and leadership to a line that lacks both with the loss of both Smith and Dieffenbach.

Brendan Mahon and Brian Gaia will line up on either side of Mangiro, just as they did against UCF.  Mahon started nine games at left guard before giving way to Dieffenbach's return.  The rising redshirt sophomore struggled somewhat last season, but a year of experience and strength training should show some progression this spring.  Gaia, he of the unfortunate .gif above, was recruited as an offensive lineman, was shuttled to the defensive line by Bill O'Brien's staff immediately upon his arrival, then transitioned back during the first year of the Franklin Era due to an astounding lack of depth at any of the line positions.  The rising redshirt junior started twelve games at guard last year (eleven on the right side, one on the left), and has the potential to become a quality player as he continues to grow into his projected position.

Andrew Nelson started all thirteen games last year at tackle, including two on the left side where he substituted for an injured Donovan Smith.  The redshirt sophomore has prototypical measurements for an offensive tackle, and performed admirably during his first go-round last year.  Nelson will be counted on to be a stabilizing force on a line with plenty of moving parts.

Paris Palmer, a junior college transfer from Lackawanna, takes the reins at left tackle, at least for the spring.  Palmer is an interesting figure - he stands an elite 6'7, but weighed in this spring at just 278 pounds.  He has far more game experience than any of his competition, but those games were on the junior college level.  It is unclear how Palmer will transition to the speed of FBS football, although the staff was thrilled to sign him and has immediately pegged him as Smith's replacement when he stepped on campus.

Primary Backups: Wendy Laurent, Derek Dowrey, Chance Sorrell

We've listed three here, but you might as well cite any number of prospects at this point in the spring.  Laurent and Dowrey both saw plenty of playing time last year at center and guard, respectively.  Dowrey spelled both guards with relative frequency during 2014, and Laurent started three games at center while Mangiro moved to guard.  Expect to see a heavy dose of both players during this weekend's scrimmage.  Likewise for Chance Sorrell, the redshirt freshman who was originally committed to Vanderbilt before immediately jumping to Penn State once Franklin was hired.  Sorrell has seen some first team reps during spring practice and will have an opportunity to introduce himself to Penn Staters during this weekend's festivities.

[1] My deepest apologies to the 2002, 2005, 2006, and 2008 offensive lines.