STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State Phil Trautwein likened his offensive line’s development to writing.
“It just takes time,” Trautwein said. “It takes you years of experience to learn and to grow and to know how to communicate. It’s the same thing in this job. … And then you get some good recruits, some good players and it makes you a better coach.”
Penn State head coach James Franklin called the run game’s ceiling – which relies on the offensive line’s production – a “question mark” this season.
He was cautious to make lofty promises. The offensive line has notoriously been the Nittany Lions’ weakest positional group since Franklin was hired in 2014.
“I’m not gonna sit here pounding the table that this is the year,” Franklin said. “That hasn’t necessarily played out the way we wanted the last couple of years. I’m going to take a more measured approach there and let them and let us prove that to you.”
Last season, Penn State finished last in the Big 10 in sacks allowed. Opponents also out rushed the Nittany Lions, 2,352 yards to 1,743. And they ran the ball 88 fewer times than opponents for an average of 107.8 yards per game, good for second worst in the conference.
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Keyvone Lee led all running backs with 108 carries, averaging 40.8 yards per game. The 6-foot, 239-pound tailback said he’s most excited to showcase how much faster he’s gotten this offseason.
Noah Cain was a close second in carries with 106 but transferred to Louisiana State in January. Junior Devyn Ford is expected to step into a bulk of the second-string reps. Nick Singleton, a freshman five-star recruit from Reading, Pa., is poised to be the future.
“Being the experienced one, [Ford] has to be a tough guy,” said offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. “He’s got to be able to do all things. We expect him to continue to compete his butt off, secure the football, run tough and be great in protections. With his experience, he can be a great mentor and a leader for us too.”
If not for an improved offensive line, Penn State’s run game could see another year statistically at the bottom of the conference.
Juice Scruggs is expected to start at center after playing predominantly right guard last year. Caedan Wallace, the only other returning starter, and Olu Fashanu will line up as the two tackles. Sal Wormley and Landon Tengwall fill out the guard positions.
Trautwein pointed to the new system under Yurcich as one reason for the group’s struggles last year. He’s also optimistic about the improved physicality.
“How we’re coming off the ball right now, our double teams, and our communication because these guys have been with each other for a while,” he said. “At the end of the day if your philosophy and the culture in your room is good, you’ll be good.”
An improved offensive line takes pressure off sixth-year quarterback Sean Clifford and allows Yurcich to open up the playbook more.
Lee added there have been countless meetings between the running backs and offensive line reviewing every detail in film study or open dialogue.
“We have some really good running backs,” Trautwein said. “They believe in our offensive line and our offensive line believes in the running backs. We got really good tight ends. I think we’re going to be a hell of a run team. I don’t know numbers or whatever but we’re going to run the ball.”
Penn State’s success will rely heavily on its offensive production, predicated on the growth of the offensive line. It remains to be seen if, like writing, more reps means greater success.