We are just winding down one of the calmer times of year for the Penn State football program. As Nittany Lion fans can attest, when there is a ton of news to cover in early January -- and the team is not in the national championship hunt -- it usually means the program is scrambling to find a new head coach.
But this year, outside of a few early exits to the NFL Draft, not a whole lot has been cooking for head coach James Franklin and company -- especially since the current recruiting dead period runs through Thursday. As of this writing, most of the staff was in the Dallas area for the AFCA Convention.
So we might as well dive into some of our Ridiculously Early Predictions for Penn State football in 2015. We'll start by taking our best guess at how the offensive line will shape up.
Keep in mind that A LOT can (and probably will) change between now and the 2015 season opener at Temple Sept. 5. And keep in mind that things likely will not come into sharper focus until spring ball.
But what fun is it waiting until then?
With veteran left tackle Donovan Smith declaring for the NFL Draft and guard Miles Dieffenbach having exhausted his eligibility, there are a couple of pretty big holes to fill up front. But this team is already kind of used to not having both guys.
Smith missed two games last season with what was believed to be a knee injury. And Dieffenbach did not play until the Indiana game -- and only started the last three outings -- while recovering from a torn ACL. He missed the final three quarters of the Pinstripe Bowl due to another knee problem.
So the staff had to juggle personnel to fill in. As things stand, the Lions will return six different offensive linemen who started at least one game last season. Tackle Andrew Nelson and versatile Angelo Mangiro started every game. Enrolling for the spring semester is junior college transfer Paris Palmer.
Also in the mix for serious playing time will be three redshirt freshmen who were good enough to climb to the second team as rookies last fall (but fortunate enough to maintain their redshirts).
That brings us to the true freshman class, which as of this writing included three offensive linemen. One of them, four-star tackle Sterling Jenkins, enrolled early and will have the benefit of going through winter workouts and spring ball. But, given that the staff did not play any true freshmen up front last season -- when depth and talent were worse issues than they will be next fall -- it is difficult to envision Franklin and company going the rookie route this year.
So with out further delay, here is how we see the line breaking down.
1. Andrew Nelson (RS-SO)
2. Chasz Wright (RS-FR)
THE LOWOWN: This is obviously a critical position given that the man handling it is protecting the blindside of quarterback Christian Hackenberg. When Smith was out last season, Nelson moved over from right tackle, and did OK for a redshirt freshman.
At 6-foot-5, Nelson already tips the scales at about 315 pounds, even though he does not look quite that heavy. He moves very well, too. While he may not be the long-term answer here -- his body type sure would look good at guard in this offense -- Nelson is the best pass protector the Lions have at this point and we expect him to do well.
Wherever he plays, Nelson's work ethic and leadership skills -- two things that were not strong points for Smith -- are allowing him to develop into a foundation for this building unit. Had he not missed most of spring practice with a knee injury last year, he'd probably be even further along than he is now. So staying healthy this offseason is important for him.
Wright is huge (6-7, 321) and strong. But he is not as technically sound as he needs to be. While we're sure that will improve before next season, we just don't see the coaching staff relying on someone who has never played in a game to protect Hackenberg's blindside.
1. Chance Sorrell (RS-FR)
2. Paris Palmer (JR)
THE LOWDOWN: When Palmer committed to Penn State in December, many thought he would be quickly plugged in as a starter. This was even before Smith announced he was leaving (though the writing seemed to be on the wall there).
We're not so sure. It is a huge leap from the juco ranks to the Big Ten, even for a huge man (6-8, 305) like Palmer (who has already enrolled). And we're trying to remember the last juco transfer who stepped right in as a start at PSU.
Sorrell has been in the system since last summer and the former high school tight end developed quickly enough to move up to the second team last season. He's long and athletic, and has been packing on the pounds. There's no telling how much a winter in the weight program and then spring practice will increase the 18-year-old's trajectory.
This will not be a position of strength for Penn State, regardless of who starts. So all else being equal, why not go with a youngster (as PSU did with Nelson last year) who appears to have a greater upside?
THE LOWDOWN: This is our biggest gamble among the O-line predictions and will surely spark debate. Bring it on. ;)
Brendan Mahon was a nine-game starter last season, but ultimately gave way to Dieffenbach when the senior was healthy enough to play. Then in the bowl, something interesting happened. When Dieffenbach was knocked out of action, he was initially replaced by Mahon. That lasted one play -- a lost fumble on the center-quarterback snap that did not appear to have anything to do with Mahon. Regardless, on the next series, Derek Dowrey was in at left guard, and stayed there for the rest of the game. Dowrey was still playing with a heavy wrap on a right hand that was injured in training camp.
The point is that Dieffenbach and Dowrey were both at less than 100 percent when they were seeing playing time ahead of a healthy Mahon.
So we'll take a bit of a flier here and go with Beh, even though it is going to depend on him packing another 25 pounds or so onto his frame through winter workouts, the spring and summer. But he has the body type to handle it and, from what we understand, the necessary work ethic, too. Like Sorrell, he is long and athletic, two qualities Franklin and position coach Herb Hand covet in their linemen. And like Sorrell, he quickly moved up to the second team last fall, even though he was seriously undersized at about 265 pounds.
If a 265-pound Beh is good enough to earn second-team reps in practice, we have to imagine a 290-pound Beh will make a serious push at a starting position.
1. Brian Gaia (RS-JR)
2. Derek Dowrey (RS-JR)
THE LOWDOWN: Gaia was a 12-game starter last season after moving over from the defensive line, and there is something to be said for the experience he gained seeing all of that action. However, even at the end of the year, he still looked like a defensive lineman playing on the offensive front -- attempting to rely on brute force to get the job done, as opposed to technique. The highly publicized play where he relentlessly blocked a guy from his own team (Nelson) epitomized that.
But, for the time being, we don't see anyone who projects as being better at this spot. Ideally, another off-season spent working at the position will pay off for Gaia.
Dowrey is kind of in the same boat. Another very strong converted D-lineman, as we noted, the hand injury slowed him down last year. As important as hand-fighting has become in the trenches, it probably helps to explain why he only made one start and otherwise was used mainly as a sixth offensive lineman or a lineman in the backfield (before the last three quarters of the bowl).
1. Angelo Mangiro (RS-SR)
2. Wendy Laurent (RS-JR)
THE LOWDOWN: Barring injury (or other issues), this position appears to be fairly well locked down, even seven months before training camp starts. As noted, the versatile Mangiro started every game last season, seeing action at center, guard and tackle. That obviously spoke to his intelligence and willingness to do whatever was asked to help the team. And those are two very important qualities for a center, who makes the calls for the line. His athleticism is not going to blow you away. But Mangiro is strong and has developed solid leadership skills.
Laurent got the nod at center in three games when Mangiro was forced to handle other positions. But at 280 pounds, he just does not appear to be big enough to take on massive nose tackles on an every-down basis. And this far into his career -- he's been in the PSU weight program for three years now -- it is fair to wonder if adding good weight is really an option.
WRAP IT UP
So that is our best guess for how the Penn State offensive line will shape up in 2015. If you want to join the discussion and debate on the matter, be sure to visit our premium forum.
Keep in mind that, as of this writing, the Lions were still in the mix for at least one more juco offensive linemen and there was a chance a graduate transfer from another school could join the program.
However things play out, the staff has to hope it has much better luck with the unit this off-season than last.
Two linemen (Tanner Hartman, Anthony Alosi) who were expected to contribute were run off due to discipline issues. Dieffenbach was injured early in the spring. Nelson was held out of most drills in the spring with the knee problem. Smith was limited by injuries, too.
In short, the unit, which had only one returning starter (Smith), was unable to develop any chemistry during the spring. And it paid the price for that once the regular season rolled around.
So improving overall size, strength and technique is a key for this unit in the offseason.
But -- no matter how the starting lineup shapes up -- it will be just as important for everyone to stay healthy and avoid off-field issues, to develop the cohesion that was so sorely lacking most of last season.