Donovan Smith had one of the more strange careers in recent memory. Penn State's former left tackler – who is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – seemed to regress a little in each of his three years as Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg's blind side protector. However, the most important member of each year's line was Smith, mostly because he played the most important position on the group, but also because when he played to the best of his ability, he was spectacular.
With Smith gone, there is a big ol' need at left tackle, which brings us to the second question in this series: which player is going to replace Donovan Smith in 2015?
Devon: Paris Palmer, hopefully. It became clear that it was a good decision for Smith to leave early when he was taken at the top of the 2nd round, but the fact only underlines how frustrating his junior year was. Smith dominated at the Senior Bowl, playing against the best defensive ends in the country, but couldn't be the rock Penn State needed against some of the worst lines in the Big Ten. Maybe he was banged up, maybe he just wasn't ready for that kind of leadership, but Smith's junior year was unquestionably a disappointment--that he leaves such big shoes to fill is just the cherry on top. Palmer has the best pedigree of anyone on the roster, as one of the top JuCo talents available, but the initial reports haven't been encouraging. He was listed at over 300 pounds by the recruiting services, but has apparently looked undersized throughout the spring. Given that the competition at LT is him and Chance Sorrell, it's clear the staff hopes Palmer can bulk up and hold down the left side. It would be nice if something worked out for Herb Hand.
Matt: The obvious pick is JUCO star Paris Palmer, but my vote goes to Andrew Nelson. James Franklin has harped on this since he arrived, but he doesn't want his offensive linemen playing significant snaps before their 3rd year. Obviously that went out the window with PSU's depth situation. Now in his 3rd year with PSU, Nelson is in a position to take a big step on the line. He is a player that two coaching staffs have singled out for big things once he put it all together.
PSU's offensive line will likely be a work in progress for a few games into the season, and as talented as Palmer is, Lackawanna Community College to Penn State is a huge step in the quality of opposition. I would not be at all surprised to see Nelson start out on the left side of the line, and take control of the spot.
Jared: My most intelligent guess is that Andrew Nelson moves to left tackle after an extremely promising redshirt freshman season. I thought Paris Palmer might be the best choice initially, but I worry he may not have the size to protect Christian Hackenberg's blindside. Hopefully he has spent his time since the Blue-White Game visiting various buffets and will be closer to 300 lbs. by September 5. While Smith was a very high draft choice, he seemed to lack focus at times during the past two seasons, which makes me think that Nelson may be a step up at the left tackle position in 2015.
Dan: While Andrew Nelson is inexperienced, he is still probably more ready for Big Ten action than Paris Palmer is, so I too see him kicking out to left tackle. Nelson was the most inspiring of any of the young offensive linemen forced into action in 2014, and I trust in his drive, Herb Hand's coaching, and a year of experience to make it happen on Christian Hackenberg's blindside in 2015. And I heard rumblings about Donovan Smith's lack of work ethic during his time at Penn State, so while his talent will not be easy to replace, it seems that his attitude may be much easier to.
Cari: My guess is it's going to be a committee. I'm not sold on the starting line of Mangiro, Nelson, Gaia, Mahon, and Laurent, though that could be who we see at the beginning of the season--with Palmer and Reihner liberally added in. Donovan Smith was clearly, despite his faults, the best offensive lineman on the worst unit of Penn State's team last year, so even if all five guys improve even minutely the unit as a whole will step up from dumpster fire to meh. And that could provide the replacement for Smith that the offense needs to get the team over the hump into double digit wins.
Nick: It has to be Andrew Nelson. While I think he profiles better (based on last season) as a right tackle, Herb Hand simply doesn't have any better options. Unless Paris Palmer comes to camp in the fall reinvigorated and shows something he didn't quite show in the spring, he's likely the only realistic option, as well. Palmer was being dubbed the left tackle of the (immediate) future from the second he committed, but those hopes seem to be premature. Nelson has the benefit of more time in the system which has allowed him to gain valuable game experience, as well as a deeper understanding of the playbook. Nelson flashed his great potential at times last season, and even played some of his best football of the year during the times where he was forced into Donovan Smith's spot. Giving him a full preseason and regular season as the starting left tackle should help provide stability to the line, as well as further prepare Nelson for his next few seasons as the Nittany Lion blindside defender.
Bill: I've gone back and forth on whether the answer is Andrew Nelson or Paris Palmer 500 times, and I still don't htink there is a clear answer. On one hand, Palmer is the highly sought-after JuCo prospect who is massive, but still needs to add some weight (he's listed at 278 pounds, and he probably needs to get to at least 300) and there's nothing that guarantees that he'll pick up everything that Herb Hand wants him to learn about playing the position in his system, even though he enrolled early. On the other is Nelson, who has experience in Penn State's system and performed admirably, but there are plenty of examples throughout football history of people who have struggled with the switch from right to left tackle.
In the end, give me Palmer, just because I think James Franklin will want there to be as much continuity along the line from last year, and I trust that Palmer will bulk up and spend the summer learning the position. However, ask me again tomorrow, because I'll almost certainly change my mind.