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Penn State’s 2019 Breakout Player: OT Will Fries

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NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As has always been the case during James Franklin’s tenure, Penn State fans are not sure what to expect of the offensive line heading into the season. While they made strides pass blocking in 2017, their run blocking faltered. Then in 2018, while the run blocking improved, the pass blocking regressed. Heading into 2019, it’s an enigmatic group highlighted by a good level of experience and talent, but also underscored by the level of expectations that previous units have failed to reach.

Perhaps no player exemplifies the enigmatic nature of this offensive line more than Will Fries. As a true freshman in 2016, he pushed very hard to have his redshirt pulled, but alas, the staff elected to roll with Chasz Wright and Ryan Bates at offensive tackle, preserving Fries’ redshirt. The following season, Fries worked his way into the starting lineup, starting nine of the team’s 13 games. While Fries didn’t play at an all-conference level, I always felt his play was undervalued. I remember the Fiesta Bowl in particular where it seemed like Fries was really coming into his own, making good blocks, or at the very least, showing the ability to recover when initially beaten.

He didn’t have many highlight blocks, but for a redshirt freshman left tackle, Fries was incredibly steady. Prototypical future first round pick left tackle? Maybe not. But a three-or-four-year starter that always seemed to grade out positively? Perhaps.

Fries’ 2018 season — much like the rest of the offensive line — was not much to write home about. For a player that seemed reliable and dependable as a redshirt freshman, that didn’t follow as a redshirt sophomore. I’ve theorized on the “Black Shoes, Basic Podcast” that something seemed off with Fries — whether it be a hampering injury or an adjustment to a bigger frame. He just didn’t seem to move as well in 2018 as he did in 2017. Whatever the case, I continue to be a believer in Fries. There was just too much good in 2017 for him to have plateaued as a player.

The last two years, we’ve seen Fries bounce around at both left tackle and right tackle, and even a start at guard. Some of this was due to injury (Ryan Bates in 2017), and some of this was just to change things up (last year, for example). Moving forward though, right tackle should be Fries’ home. From what we saw during the Blue-White game, and from what I was able to sleuth from twitter, that appears to be the case:

Versatility is great for any football player. The ability to play a multitude of positions is always valuable. But for an offensive lineman, and for Fries specifically, having him set for one spot should be beneficial to his development. John Wooden has a great quote on the “eight laws of learning” where the last five laws are repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition; that seems apt for Fries at right tackle. Stick him there, let him be, and I think we’ll see a bounce back season where Fries grows on the promise he showed in 2017.