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Offensive Line Deep Dive: Predicting 2024 Starters by the Numbers and the Eye Test

Breakdown of the competitions for each starting lineman position in 2024.

Right Tackle

Candidates:

  • Anthony Donkoh
  • J'ven Williams

Donkoh - By The Numbers

  • 95 snaps in 2023 (regular and post - per PFF)
  • 70.7 PFF run block grade in 2023
  • 81.3 PFF pass block grade in 2023
  • Four star recruit as IOL (per 247Sports)
  • 6'5" 323-335 pounds (gopsusports.com weight vs PFF weight)
  • Will be redshirt freshman in 2024

Williams - By The Numbers

  • 49 snaps in 2023 (regular and post - per PFF)
  • 58.9 PFF run block grade in 2023
  • 78.7 PFF pass block grade in 2023
  • Five star recruit as OT (per 247Sports)
  • 6'5" 303-313 pounds (gopsusports.com weight vs PFF weight)
  • Will be redshirt freshman in 2024

Breakdown/Eye Test

From the eye test perspective, there's a lot less to go on here than some of the other offensive line competitions. Both of these lineman played relatively few snaps in '23, which should come as no surprise since veteran right tackle Caedan Wallace (who has since declared for the NFL draft) played 670 snaps last year, all of them at right tackle.

As is often the case when projecting future starters, bowl game snap counts provide a bit more clarity. Wallace only played 26 snaps during the loss to Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, which allowed Donkoh to play the most snaps at RT that game (46). Williams, on the other hand, played no snaps in the bowl game - only having rotated in for a handful of snaps during three regular season contests. In those three games, notably, all snaps actually came at the left tackle position. Perhaps Williams has a better shot at competing for snaps at that position in 2024 (more on that later).

Prediction: Anthony Donkoh

Again, without an overwhelming amount of data or footage to judge, it is hard to feel confident when making a prediction for this starting spot in '24. However, it's probably not a dangerous assumption to put a lot of stock in the Peach Bowl snap counts. That, coupled with Donkoh's size and high PFF grades in the snaps that he did get at the position, overwhelms any concerns I might have about him (e.g. being initally recruited as an IOL) and makes me lean in his direction.

Right Guard

Candidates:

  • Vega Ioane
  • Sal Wormley

Ioane - By The Numbers

  • 670 snaps in 2023 (regular and post - per PFF)
  • 66.3 PFF run block grade in 2023
  • 65.3 PFF pass block grade in 2023
  • Three star recruit as IOL (per 247Sports)
  • 6'4" 330-348 pounds (PFF weight vs gopsusports.com weight)
  • Will be redshirt sophomore in 2024

Wormley - By The Numbers

  • 751 snaps in 2023 (regular and post - per PFF)
  • 60.3 PFF run block grade in 2023
  • 60.4 PFF pass block grade in 2023
  • Three star recruit as IOL (per 247Sports)
  • 6'3" 324 pounds (gopsusports.com and PFF agree!)
  • Will be redshirt senior+ in 2024 (sixth year on campus)

Breakdown/Eye Test

This is the toughest of all the competitions in my mind. While Coach Franklin (and even myself to some extent) tends to prioritize experience, it feels like it's going to be hard for Wormley to win this starting spot for a third consecutive year. It's bittersweet, the team accomplished so much with him at RG these past few years, but it also feels like we all have way too many memories of the right side of the pocket collapsing, and Clifford/Allar having to run for their lives as a result. While it did feel like the right side of the line performed better in 2023 than the few years preceding it, it also felt like that had more to do with Wallace taking a leap at RT (72.3 PFF pass block grade in '23) than it did with Wormley.

Prediction: Vega Ioane

Ioane started the '23 season by rotating in for a heavy diet of snaps at LG behind then-starter J.B. Nelson. When Nelson went down with an injury at Northwestern, Ioane was able to slide in to that starting spot without missing a beat. This allowed him to play more snaps than Nelson on the season and, while I believe that a healthy Nelson should (spoiler alert) win his starting job back at LG to start the year, I think Ioane proved that he has what it takes to beat out a veteran for the RG starting job.

Center

With respect to Dominic Rulli (who will be a redshirt sophomore this year and undoubtedly get some snaps while the team plans for the years to come), there is not much of a competition at this spot...

Prediction: Nick Dawkins

Dawkins - By The Numbers

  • 189 snaps in 2023 (regular and post - per PFF)
  • 69.6 PFF run block grade in 2023
  • 70.6 PFF pass block grade in 2023
  • Three star recruit as IOL (per 247Sports)
  • 6'4" 315-321 pounds (gopsusports.com weight vs PFF weight)
  • Will be redshirt senior in 2024

Breakdown/Eye Test

Like the candidates at right tackle, it's tough to analyze Dawkins with him only having had a relatively small sample size of 189 snaps in 2023 (with most coming in blowouts like the Delaware and UMASS games). That makes it tough for both the eye and also for advanced stats (like the above from PFF) to really provide some insight. Other than pointing to the small sample size though, there isn't any other reason I could point to as to why he wouldn't be the day 1 starter at center. There is minimal competition, and the coaching staff is already giving him some praise at the start of winter workouts.

Left Guard

Candidates:

  • J.B. Nelson
  • Whoever loses out in the RG competition

Nelson - By The Numbers

  • 417 snaps in 2023 (regular and post - per PFF)
  • 63.6 PFF run block grade in 2023
  • 62.4 PFF pass block grade in 2023
  • Four star JuCo recruit as OT (per 247Sports)
  • 6'5" 332-334 pounds (PFF weight vs gopsusports.com weight)
  • Will be redshirt senior in 2024

Breakdown/Eye Test

The day will come when a Lackawanna Junior College transfer fails to impress me at Penn State... but that day is not today. Nelson plays with a ferocity and flair that is more reminiscent of a five star on a Nick Saban title team than it is of a four star JuCo product. He is also a prime example of an instance in which I disagree with the PFF numbers. The numbers aren't terrible, but they certainly don't account for the way he looked when he was able to get downhill and lay out defenders on run plays when he was healthy last year. It was a joy to watch him compete and was so sad to see him injured. The hope is that he is 100% recovered by the start of the 2024 season and is able to give a full year to the Nittany Lions at guard.

Prediction: J.B. Nelson

Again, both the candidates I outlined for the right guard competition are very qualified, and the better way to frame this competition broadly is really a contest for two spots between three guys in Wormley, Ioane, and Nelson. However, as I outlined above, I think this will be a rare instance in which the newer guys win the jobs.

Left Tackle

Candidates:

  • Drew Shelton
  • Nolan Rucci
  • Whoever loses out in the RT competition

Shelton - By The Numbers

  • 385 snaps in 2023 (regular and post - per PFF)
  • 62.3 PFF run block grade in 2023
  • 45.0 PFF pass block grade in 2023
  • Four star recruit as OT (per 247Sports)
  • 6'5" 306-308 pounds (gopsusports.com weight vs PFF weight)
  • Will be junior in 2024

Rucci - By The Numbers

  • 42 snaps in 2023 (regular and post - per PFF)
  • 71.1 PFF run block grade in 2023
  • 51.6 PFF pass block grade in 2023
  • Three star transfer as OT from Wisconsin (per 247Sports)
  • 6'8" 300 pounds (gopsusports.com and PFF agree!)
  • Will be redshirt junior in 2024

Breakdown/Eye Test

The right tackle competition that I outlined above may involve less "high-profile" names, but I am actually more optimistic about one of those two guys (Donkoh or Williams) being successful at Penn State than I am about Shelton or Rucci...

The coaching staff has made it clear over the past few years that they really want Shelton to "happen." They have been force feeding him snaps (not only 385 in 2023 but also 379 in 2022 as a true freshman), and the unfortunate truth is that it just may not "happen" for him. He had a poor PFF grade in pass blocking in '23, and in a near equal number of snaps in '22, he posted an even worse grade as a run blocker (42.0). I hate to admit it (because I too really want it to "happen" for Shelton), but my eyes have been in lockstep with PFF on this one. It was painfully noticeable any possesion they rotated him in for last year. To be fair, you'll stick out more when the guy you're trying to replace is someone like Olu Fashanu or the aforementioned Caedan Wallace, but even then it struck me as a level of performance that was simply not up to the standard.

Rucci I am equally pessimistic about, but for different reasons. I can't say that I'm an expert on him, I wasn't locked in to every Wisconsin football game the past few years the way I was with Penn State, but even if I had been, I'm not sure I would have learned much; Rucci played only 42 snaps last year and played even fewer (28) as a redshirt freshman in 2022. You can't really do much with the PFF grades for either year due to sample size, but my bigger point here is that I don't really understand why this move has gotten as much media hype as it has. I understand the PA connection and the allure of having had five stars coming out of high school, but there's a lot that needs to be proven on the field before I buy in here. I would also be more willing to drink the Kool-Aid if he wasn't listed at only 300 pounds, which feels light for a 6'8" frame.

Prediction: Drew Shelton

Call it sunk cost fallacy if you want, but there's almost no chance the staff goes with someone else for day 1 starter here after all the time and effort they've invested in Shelton. There's nothing that would make me happier than being wrong about Shelton; and there's obviously a world where he comes in with a full offseason as the LT heir apparent and plays with a really high degree of comfort and confidence. Bottom line is, even if there's individual uncertainty about guys like Rucci, Shelton, and Williams, there is just so much potential there that, as long as the coaching staff is willing to made adjustments and try out different guys, it feels like there's a high chance that they hit the mark with at least one of them.

Notes

It's important to note that these competitions are all more fluid than they are rigid. While I tried to outline as many realistic possibilities as I could, there are plenty of other permutations that the team could end up with for the five starting lineman in their first game. For instance, if Nelson loses out at both guard spots, but the competition at either tackle spot remains open, he could certainly contend for that as well given his experience at tackle at previous levels. The inverse would also be true for someone like Donkoh (has experience at previous levels as IOL). Lastly, even though there are added responsibilities at center on top of blocking, it's conceivable that one of the talented guards who doesn't win a starting spot is able to compete for that job as well, as long as they have enough time to practice those added responsibilities (e.g. aligning protections, learning the way the QBs like the ball snapped, etc.).

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