Christian Hackenberg was sacked 44 times last season. The Penn State running game was dead last in the Big Ten. And that meant a lot of fingers were pointed at the Nittany Lions’ offensive line.
The O-line was the subject of much scorn in 2014, and for that reason it’s a focal point heading into 2015. The Lions made it a focal point of their offseason, too, bringing in a pair of transfers to bolster a unit that returns four more-experienced — and healthier — starters. Penn State is feeling good about the guys up front, even if outsiders are taking a more skeptical eye. But a little bit of consistency could go a long way for this group.
"Obviously offensive line is going to be a big storyline going into the season,” head coach James Franklin said last month during Big Ten Media Days. “We're just in a different position. I think we've made great progress. We still have a lot of progress that still has to take place. Last year we came into the season with one returning starter. This year we're coming into the season with four returning starters.
“Last year our left tackle would go down. We'd move our right tackle to left tackle. Our center would go to right tackle, and the backup center would come in. Hopefully, we'll be in a position this year where if we do have some bumps and bruises, the backup could slide in and it's just interchanging one spot."
Though maligned by many, the offensive line has the support of the team. That includes Hackenberg, who was under constant pressure and taken down many times, at least partially because of the O-line’s play. Franklin addressed that the team needs to do better at keeping Hackenberg from getting sacked, but Hackenberg took all the focus off his teammates, instead talking about how he needs to be better to help them out.
“Hindsight is 20-20. You can go back and look at it, but there are a lot of things that I could have done to help them out that I didn't do at times,” Hackenberg said earlier this month during the team’s media day. “It is what it is, but I know that those guys have worked extremely hard this offseason, especially this summer in terms of the film room, the extra work. (Center Angelo Mangiro) has done an excellent job with that bunch. I've worked on a lot of those things that I feel I could have helped them with. This camp, you're going to see a group that's extremely focused, playing with a chip on their shoulder. I'm excited for them. I think everything that they are going to do this year, they've earned it. I'm extremely excited about the opportunity that they have. It's going to help our football team, and at the end of the day, that's what it is all about.”
As Franklin alluded to, Penn State returns four starters from last year’s squad. Mangiro and Andrew Nelson started all 13 games. Brian Gaia started 12 games. Brendan Mahon started nine games. Regardless of their effectiveness in 2014, that’s a great amount of experience to return.
Plus, the team has added a pair of new players in junior-college transfer Paris Palmer and graduate transfer Kevin Reihner, who played at Stanford the past three seasons. Palmer is competing for a starting spot, while Reihner, who didn’t start a game in his career at Stanford, is providing veteran leadership. The addition of those two experienced players ought to lead to even better play along that line.
“Kevin Reihner has done a great job,” Franklin said. “I'm really interested to see how it translates on the field. His leadership in the meeting rooms, knowledge of the game, and passion for Penn State with his family connections has been really good. He's brought a lot of value to our organization already before even hitting the field. He's been a great voice with our players. He's been really good for me. Whenever we hire a new person or whenever we recruit somebody or whenever we transfer in somebody like that, I always bring him into my office and ask him what their thoughts are. You have fresh eyes coming in with a different perspective. I want to know how do things compare to the last place you were at and those types of things, so that was really valuable.
“I think having all that returning experience, they're going to be able to play so much more confident and decisive. So it's extremely valuable, and especially at that position where he's going to have to get caught up is just the cohesiveness of working together, that four of those guys already have. Obviously, what we've got to do is speed up the maturation process, not only of Paris and Chance (Sorrell) that are both competing and fighting for that job, but then also the maturation process of the unit as a whole and all five of those guys working well together and feeling comfortable and being able to anticipate what guys are going to do. That's when you're able to play fast and aggressive.”
With an infusion of reinforcements and the sheer experience returning for the Lions, things could certainly go differently for an offensive line under siege so often last season.