As much as Penn State's offensive line has struggled this season, giving up a Big Ten worst 30 sacks and fronting a ground attack that is averaging a league-low 77.1 yards per game, nobody with a clue is blaming the linemen themselves.
Eight games into the season, it remains a painfully young and inexperienced unit. NCAA sanctions, poor recruiting by previous staffs, graduation and injuries have forced a handful of athletes not quite ready for prime time onto the main stage.
Heading into this week's game at Indiana, the Nittany Lions' projected starting offensive linemen have combined for 32 career starts, all of them this year. Yet even though they've struggled to gain a solid footing, the 19-year-old who has emerged as the young leader of the O-line is not feeling down on himself or his position mates.
I'm very blessed and very fortunate to be able to play this early in my career, redshirt freshman tackle Andrew Nelson said earlier this week. I just want to be able to keep on helping Penn State as much as I can.
Make no mistake, Nelson is not suggesting anything has been easy for himself or the line. Or, for that matter, sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who has been on the receiving end of all 30 of those sacks.
Obviously it's frustrating, Nelson said. Obviously we want to be a good team and want to be able to run the ball a ton every game, and we don't want Hack to keep getting hit.
And he admits to not expecting to be in the position to start this early in his career.
But he made such a strong impression during his first training camp (under then-coach Bill O'Brien) that that staff intended to play him as a true freshman before he was slowed by a minor knee injury. So he went into a redshirt.
This year, under new coach James Franklin, Nelson missed much of spring practice and off-season workouts while dealing with another knee issue. Yet the 6-foot-5, 315-pounder easily won the starting right tackle spot in training camp.
“I’m actually kind of excited about his future development because he’s light on his feet and athletic. He’s a smart guy, and I think for a redshirt freshman, he’s been playing pretty well.”
I'm a huge fan of his, Franklin said. For as big as he is, he's got really light feet. He missed a lot of offseason in terms of strength and conditioning. I'm actually kind of excited about his future development because he's light on his feet and athletic. He's a smart guy, and I think for a redshirt freshman, he's been playing pretty well.
Nelson has been a mainstay up front all year, and even made the move to left tackle when veteran Donovan Smith was hurt during a loss to Ohio State.
I (never) thought I would have an opportunity to play my first year and then start my second year, Nelson said. I didn't really see that coming in.
More importantly, Nelson figures to be a mainstay on the line for the rest of his career. With that in mind, he can see the benefits to what he is enduring this fall.
People always say that the closer you are to the ball, the harder it is to play early on, Nelson said. So center, guard, tackle -- offensive line -- it's difficult to play early on because there's a lot of experience that needs to be (developed) so you can understand things and kind of play at your best.
This season, I knew that I was going to experience difficulties and struggles here and there, he added. But I think that's good. I think everybody needs to go through that, especially at the offensive line positions. I'm glad I was able to experience this early in my career so I can be that much better in future years.
Franklin sees things the same way.
He's a guy that really has a chance to develop into a leader for us, the coach said. It's hard to ask that of him as a redshirt freshman at this point. But I'm pleased with him, excited about his future.
Until then, well, Nelson will keeping grinding away. And feeling blessed and fortunate that he is able to do so.
We know our limitations as an offense and we know where we're at this year, Nelson said. So basically we're just gonna try to get better every single day, and within the confines of what we can do, we're gonna try to be the best.