Since the James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley, one of the biggest criticisms he’s received was the play of the offensive line. Even during the 42-win stretch from 2016-2019, the offensive line was never viewed as a consistently sound unit like Penn State fans — rightly or wrongly — wanted.
Penn State made somewhat of an aggressive move after the 2019 season, deciding not to re-sign offensive line coach Matt Limegrover and instead bringing in the young, 33-year-old Phil Trautwein from Boston College. The early on-the-field returns for Trautwein were, uh, not great. The Nittany Lions struggled mightily protecting the passer in both of Trautwein’s first two seasons, finishing second-last in the Big Ten in sacks allowed in 2020 and dead last in 2021. The running game wasn’t a whole lot better, with Penn State finishing 9th in the Big Ten in yards per rushing attempt in 2020 and 12th in 2021.
Obviously, sacks and yards per rushing attempt aren’t strictly offensive line stats. There’s additional context beyond the play of the offensive line for why Penn State struggled in those two categories, but that context didn’t alleviate the pressure that was on Trautwein and his unit heading into 2022.
Pressure makes diamonds though apparently, and we ended up seeing a much-improved offensive line in 2022. The Nittany Lions leaned on a consistent running game for the first time in a while, averaging 4.81 yards per rushing attempt which was the 3rd best rate in the Big Ten. Pass protection was also much better, with Penn State allowing just 21 sacks — the least amount during the Franklin Era.
Now, with the return of four starters, the Nittany Lions head into 2023 with the offensive line as a strength. Talk about the difference a year makes, right?
LT: Olu Fashanu (RS JR) — Drew Shelton (SO) — J’ven Williams (FR)
LG: Landon Tengwall (RS SO) — JB Nelson (RS SO) — Alex Birchmeier (FR)
C: Hunter Nourzard (RS SR+) — Nick Dawkins (RS JR)
RG: Sal Wormley (RS SR) — Vega Ioane (RS FR) — Golden Israel-Achumba (RS JR)
RT: Caedan Wallace (RS SR) — Jimmy Christ (RS JR) — Ibrahim Traore (RS JR)
There are some moving pieces here, so it’s probably best to start at a spot that is set in stone: Olu Fashanu at left tackle. Before his season ended after the Ohio State game, Fashanu was having a fantastic first year as a starter, so much so that he was generating legitimate top 10 NFL draft buzz. Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, Fashanu opted to come back, stating his desire to help Penn State compete for a national title while earning his degree in Supply Chain Management. Plus, the NIL-driven Tesla wasn’t a deterrent, either.
Regardless of the reasons, getting Fashanu back gives Penn State a dominant left tackle, which is a good piece to have if you want an effective offensive line. He’s an eraser in pass protection, allowing a big fat zero sacks during all of last season. That’s music to the ears of Drew Allar and everyone who has their emotions invested in his success (see: me).
With Fashanu set at left tackle, the intrigue turns to right tackle where Caedan Wallace returns for his fifth season with the program. Like Fashanu, Wallace struggled with injuries down the stretch of the season, missing the last five regular season games before returning for rotational snaps during the Rose Bowl.
While I think it’s safe to assume that Wallace is the odds-on favorite to keep his starting right tackle spot, he’s going to have to fight to keep it with Drew Shelton coming on. I have Shelton listed as the backup left tackle above, but he’ll be in play at both spots this spring and into the fall after his encouraging play in 2022. He absolutely needs to get bigger and stronger. Shelton physically resembled Gerry Gilliam — the tight end, not the right tackle — but his athleticism and nimbleness could make him a cleaner option at right tackle.
Let’s move inside to center where Hunter Nourzad is largely expected to take the reins from Juice Scruggs. Despite battling through a number of bumps and bruises throughout the year, it was a quality first season at Penn State for the Cornell transfer. I think one of the big concerns with Ivy Leaguers or really just FCS offensive linemen in general is how well are they actually able to move? You can get by at an all-conference level in the Ivy League without being even an average athlete, but that changes big time in the Power Five. With Nourzad, I thought he passed the test athletically. He’s certainly not an overwhelming athlete, but other than Juice, I thought he moved the best out of the interior guys this past season. Not a surprise that with Juice gone, they are favoring him as the successor.
At guard, Penn State returns the two starters in Landon Tengwall and Sal Wormley, but I think like right tackle, there’s going to be a legitimate competition this offseason at both spots. That has more to do with what is behind Tengwall and Wormley than anything though, which again, just points to the nice spot that Trautwein’s room is in.
Let’s start at left guard, where Tengwall is coming off a year-ending undisclosed injury that saw his season end after just five games. Outside of the injury, Tengwall’s play was largely solid. He displayed the high-level technique that was his calling card as a Top 100 recruit, and flashed good playing strength and power. He was a bit more plodding as a mover than you’d hope for, but that could have just been a by-product of his weight — he was listed at 332 pounds last season, which might be a tick-or-two too high for him. He’s now listed on the roster at 306 pounds, which could be due to the injury but could also signal him wanting to get to a slightly lower playing weight.
Regardless, there was a lot of good to build on for Tengwall, but his injury might prevent him from being full-go at the beginning of spring practice, which makes the starting left guard spot situation especially murky. That would open the door for JB Nelson, who redshirted last season but looked like a real player when he saw extended time against Indiana. Being a Lackawanna JUCO product, Nelson has a lot to gain from another offseason within the strength and conditioning program.
As for right guard, Wormley is coming off a hot and cold season. I thought he started out very well, but the inconsistency showed up more as the season went along — especially in pass protection. It could have been the case of him struggling with the rotating cast on the offensive line, because I think much of his “cold” play came down to a lack of synergy. We’ll see if he can get it back because Wormley, at his best, is capable of being an all-conference performer.
He’ll be pushed by Vega Ioane, who James Franklin heaped praise on a couple times during the season. Fortunately, Penn State was able to keep the redshirt on Ioane who is just a mountain of a 19-year-old man at 6-foot-4, 336 pounds. He didn’t see a whole ton of playing time this past season, but served up a delicious pancake on a Nick Singleton touchdown run against Minnesota that highlighted why so many around the program giggle like a school girl when talking about Ioane’s upside.
Let’s wrap up talking about the star-studded freshmen: J’ven Williams and Alex Birchmeier. Both have enrolled early, but the path to playing time isn’t all that with the depth Penn State has. That being said, Birchmeier profiles as the one who is more likely to see playing time next season for a couple reasons:
- While both are expected to start their careers at offensive tackle, I believe that they will be much more committed to developing Williams into a tackle than Birch. Not that I necessarily think they’ll be quick to move Birch back inside, but, uh, I kinda do? I think just think his potential at tackle won’t be high enough to turn down his vastly higher potential at guard.
- For as talented and athletic as Williams is, it’s just going to be a big adjustment going from being a Wing-T high school guard to a Big Ten offensive tackle in a system that throws more than twice per game. It’s one of the things I mentioned in Williams’ Meet The Class profile, but attacking and moving forward every play is a lot different than moving backwards or laterally 40-50% of the time. It’s just going to take some time for Williams to get comfortable.
Hopefully they won’t be forced to play Birch, but I do think he’d be capable of playing early if need be. He’s pretty far advanced technique-wise, and now that he isn’t wrestling anymore, shouldn’t have much of a problem getting up above 300 pounds in short order.