In the past two years the term "offensive" was used by many a fan in describing the Penn State offensive line. The squad's declining rushing statistics seem to indicate those fans knew what they were talking about. Most fans point to this unit as the single biggest key in determining how PSU will stack up in 2002. Will the Lions offensive line be any better than what we saw last year? My take is that they will. Let's compare some personnel.
In 2001 Penn State had Joe Iorio at center, Greg Ransom and Tyler Lenda at guard, and Gus Felder and Chris McKelvey at tackle. Matt Schmitt was out most of the year and Eric Rickenbach missed the year entirely with a knee injury. None of the talented freshmen played last year and the only real contributions off the bench came from undersized Scott Davis at guard.
Essentially, PSU played almost the entire 2001 season with only 6 completely healthy offensive linemen. Over the past two years in fact, lack of depth on the offensive line has been a serious concern at Penn State. That may change this year.
In the Blue White game, we saw a team with two full sets of offensive linemen. According to coach Paterno, if the team had to play tomorrow the starting offensive line would be Joe Iorio at center, Tyler Lenda and Nick Marmo at guard, and Matt Schmitt and Damone Jones at tackle. I'm not sure how much of that is hyperbole and how much is truth.
Iorio looked fine in the spring game. He is a big kid with decent athleticism. He's probably not going to be an all Big10 player this year, but this will be his fourth year as the starting center for PSU and he looks very comfortable at the position. Eric Rickenbach is the scheduled back up at center this fall and David Costlow is currently running third team. Personally, I believe Iorio will get virtually all of the meaningful snaps at center this year and, should he ever go out with injury, they'd move E.Z. Smith over to center immediately.
Weight and pure strength have always been the concern regarding Tyler Lenda. Lenda looked a little bigger this spring, but how much bigger I'm not sure. His technique is very sound, but he still has some trouble blocking the bigger DT's. Nick Marmo has basically transformed himself. He was a 330lb. kid in high school before shedding 45lbs. prior to his Big33 appearance. He's now 6' 5" and 299lbs. according to the PSU Football website, and that appears accurate. He looked like a kid who could contribute this year and play some meaningful minutes.
The other key players at offensive guard will be E.Z. Smith, Scott Davis and Tyler Reed. I believe these three players are ready to step in and take some serious playing time this year. Davis played last year at 272lbs., and just like with Lenda, he struggled some against bigger DT's. His weight is reported to be at 287lbs. right now and I think that would have be the absolute maximum he could weigh. He's another kid with good feet and good technique, but he will have to continue to get stronger before he will be able to handle the bigger interior linemen PSU will face.
E.Z. Smith and Tyler Reed appear ready to go right now. Both of these young linemen like contact and can dish it out as well as any young linemen we have had here in a while. Smith is very agile and moves out of a three point stance quickly. He can trap block well, and he can pull in order to go out and get someone downfield. He's strong enough and quick enough to play now.
Tyler Reed is simply the best looking young offensive lineman we have had here in years, bar none. Reed dominated everyone he faced in the spring game. On running plays he drove his man down field and on passing plays no one came close to getting by him. Not even Anthony Adams could beat him in this game. Tyler Reed has future All-American written all over him in my humble opinion. The fact that he and Smith have four years left bodes extremely well for Penn State, and not for their opposition.
Matt Schmitt and Damone Jones were lined up at number one on the offensive tackle depth chart this spring. Matt is finally healthy this year and looked pretty darn good to me in the spring game. Even with two returning starters at tackle in Gus Felder and Chris McKelvey, I believe Schmitt may be starting when PSU opens against Central Florida. Schmitt is currently listed at 6' 4" and 304lbs., and he moves very well for a kid that size.
Damone Jones looked a little inconsistent in the spring game. On some plays he looked very good, but on others he was knocked off balance too easily. I believe he could be a good contributor this year, but I'm not sure he'd be able to beat out Gus Felder and Chris McKelvey to become the starter.
Gus Felder didn't play in the spring game because he was concentrating on graduating in May, but he was his ever imposing large self on the PSU sideline. He is listed at 6' 5" and 321lbs. on the official roster and I'd say he's probably all of that too. Chris McKelvey played third team due to showing up this spring out of shape and over weight. According to Coach Paterno "Chris McKelvy is not very good at 335 pounds. He is a pretty good football player, maybe, at 310 pounds, but he is just too heavy. When he gets his weight down, I think he can play." I agree Coach.
Tom McHugh and John Wilson also played a lot of snaps at tackle in this game. Wilson looked like a very good pass blocker as he made it very hard for any of the DT's to get around him. He's listed at 6' 8" tall and 318lbs., and while I'm not convinced he's 6' 8", I do believe he's a big kid who loves to smash people around. John can improve on his run blocking skills, and he needs to improve his footwork overall to keep the best speed rushers out of the backfield, but he's already showing he's on his way to becoming a tough kid in his pass blocking.
I expected to see Tom McHugh at offensive guard in this game but he played at tackle this spring. Tom isn't the biggest kid in the world, but he's got some very good blocking skills and with four years of eligibility remaining, I predict he will eventually be playing a lot of minutes here. I'd go so far as to say that he'd be more than able to hold his own this year in spot relief in Big10 games.
Overall, I think we have enough good players at the O Line to field two whole units with players good enough to play in the Big10. Coach Paterno characterized the offensive line this way in his post game press conference, "I think we have more depth at the offensive line, maybe not in great players, but good, solid players that could certainly do the job." I agree with the coach here too, and that sounds like we will be better this year. If we can stay healthy this August that will be a good start.
Zack Mills looked exactly how you'd expect - calm, cool, and self-assured. He had a 13 for 15 outing before coming out of the game for good. He looked a little bigger than he did last year which is a good thing. His ability to fake everyone out didn't take long to surface as he fooled the camera man on the firs