January 10, 2011

Penn State Recruiting the Trenches in 2011 Will Pay Off Down the Road

2010 Penn State vs Michigan State
Recruiting depth along the lines is critical to any team's success.
Penn State knows this all too well.
(Pictured: Stefen Wisniewski. Photo: LBU/Mike)
Forget those god-awful star ratings. Ignore the class rankings. Never mind how many "skill" players Penn State brings in with its 2011 recruiting class.


Because everything depends, and will depend, on how well Penn State can recruit and develop the offensive and defensive lines in the next 2, 3, and 4 years.


Traditionally, Penn State's defensive scheme depends heavily on getting pressure on the opposing quarterback with just four rushers, maybe five if a linebacker is sent. But rarely does Penn State blitz with six or more coming on the rush.

Sometimes, the four or five rushers are made up of three linemen and a linebacker, with the end dropping into a zone. Other times, two linebackers could come, with a lineman dropping. But usually, it's never more than five.

That's why it's so important to be able to get pressure with the down linemen. Remember the great defenses in 2004, 2005 and 2008? Rarely did Penn State use complex blitz packages requiring more than five rushers. Penn State's defenses were so good those years because of the talent and ability along the defensive line to get pressure on the quarterbacks and stuff the run without help from the linebackers.

In 2006, 2009 and 2010, Penn State did not have adequate talent--specifically depth of talent--on the front defensive line to get pressure on quarterbacks or get penetration on run plays. That led to Penn State having to blitz with a linebacker more often that it likes to, and even then it wasn't guaranteed to even touch the quarterback on the play.

That's why this year's recruiting class, with three defensive linemen currently verbaled to Penn State, is the perfect time to bulk up the depth along the defensive line. Shawn Oakman and Anthony Zettel were both highly sought-after recruits that Penn State as able to pull down, with Jordan Kerner another good prospect, though not regarded as a superstar.

Levi Brown came to Penn State a defensive lineman,
and left the No. 5 overall NFL Draft pick... as an offensive lineman.
(Photo: Google/Unknown)
We won't get into how those terrible star ratings used by recruiting services rarely turn out to mean anything at a program like Penn State; or how a player's high school position means little once he arrives on campus--such as A.Q. Shipley, who came to Penn State a "4-star" defensive lineman, but ended up a first team All-American Center and Rimmington Award winner. Levi Brown was another "4-star" defensive linemen out of high school, but ended his career as an All-American left tackle and No. 5 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. He's currently a starter for the Arizona Cardinals.

Penn State is in no position to recruit super-star skill players for 2011. And frankly, there isn't a huge need to do so. The state of Pennsylvania has a really weak class this year. Combine that with only about 16 scholarship slots available, Penn State is better off using this haul to bring in depth in the trenches. More on that later.


How frustrating it has been for fans to watch Penn State's offensive line struggle to open sufficient running lanes or provide adequate protection against good pass-rushing teams the last two seasons. While Penn State has brought in some fantastic offensive line prospects in recent classes, the fact of the matter is that offensive line is the most difficult position to both recruit and develop on the college level.

Offensive linemen coming out of high school are usually nothing more than big bodies who can overpower weaker players and take up a lot of space. They are the hardest recruits to accurately project to the college level. But that shouldn't completely excuse Penn State for having mediocre offensive lines for two and three years, with a really good one every three and four.

It's just the system Penn State--sometimes unfortunately--uses to build offensive lines. That's not to say Penn State doesn't want to or try to recruit highly-rated offensive linemen out of high school. It's just that Penn State doesn't stick those players out there earlier than the coaches feel comfortable with them in the lineup.

Remember players like Mark Farris, Joel Holler, Dan Mazan, or Greg Harrison? They were all "4-star" offensive linemen who signed with Penn State between 2002 and 2004. The fact that 99 percent of you probably don't remember their names says it all about the idea that recruiting highly-rated offensive linemen is anything like recruiting highly-rated skill players.

In 2011, the class already has four offensive line verbals, all of which are somewhat highly-regarded recruits. None are mega-stars, but all are good.

That puts this class around 58 percent linemen--seven recruits of the 12. If Penn State signed a class comprised 60 percent of linemen in, say, 2009 (27 total signees) we would have seen 16 offensive and defensive linemen. That's nearly an entire two-deep on both sides of the trenches.

In a class where Penn State doesn't have the luxury of recruiting very highly touted skill players because of a very limited number of scholarships available, recruiting along the offensive line is one of the safest moves this staff could do.

So, you point is...?

Penn State has endured a unique level of attrition the last few seasons along both sides of the trenches. Offensive and defensive linemen have come and gone very quickly, with those leaving usually earlier than anyone had anticipated.

That has left the team in a real bind, particularly in 2010.

Once a few injuries sprung up on the lines, depth became a huge issue for the team, and it showed immediately against teams like Iowa, Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan State. With Jack Crawford, Eric Latimore, Sean Stanley on defense, and Lou Eliades and Doug Klopacz on offense, the lines had been missing starter-level experience and talent for critical chunks of the season.

But what about the long-term attrition?

Two big names on offense--Antonio Logan-El and J.B. Walton--and four on defense--Abe Koroma, Phil Taylor, Maurice Evans and Aaron Maybin--more come to mind right off the bat. I'm sure there are more we could name, but these are some good examples.

All of those players were either super recruits or were developing into really good starters when they abruptly left the program due to a wide array of reasons.

Class of 2006 recruits Logan-El and Walton were expected to be two of the better offensive linemen Penn State's brought into the program the last decade, but by 2008, both were long gone for both personal and academic reasons.

Aaron Maybin's senior season was supposed to be 2010.
Bet Penn State could have used a guy like him?
(Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Then there was the defensive line class of 2006. Keep in mind that the 2006 haul also included Jared Odrick, to give more perspective on how good that class was along the defensive line. Koroma, Taylor and Evans all had issues staying out of trouble. Koroma and Taylor were gone by the time 2008 was finished, having never reached their full abilities on the field. Evans stayed with the team through 2008, but made the ill-advised jump to the NFL Draft, where he wasn't even drafted and never stuck to a team. Maybin also jumped to the NFL after 2008, as just a redshirt sophomore. We know how well that's worked out for him.

Those were all fantastic prospects who all were on track to merge for an absolutely killer defensive line in 2009/2010. It possibly could have ended up the best defensive line in Penn State football history. But it didn't happen. They all left before they were expected to.

Instead, we have seen an extremely poor pass rush the last two seasons, and the worst rush defense since 2003 in 2010.

But it's not just that players leave early on the lines. Every position has players who leave early. So why do the lines matter more so?

Because if you don't have depth on the lines, the entire team suffers, way more than if you don't have depth at receiver or running back or in the defensive secondary.

The offensive line is the only unit on the field that requires five players to work in absolutely perfect unison, with failure resulting in a destroyed play. Go back to 2009 and 2010. Look at Penn State trying to run the ball with any sort of authority against decent defenses, or protect Daryll Clark or Rob Bolden or Matt McGloin against Ohio State or Iowa.

On the other side of the ball, defensive lines in a system like the one Larry Johnson Sr. runs at Penn State--frequent substitutions to keep bodies fresh--definitely must have depth, or they get worn down and the opponent's offense begins to dominate the game. Again, look at teams like Iowa, Alabama, Ohio State, Illinois, and Michigan State, all teams that liked to pound the ball when the defense was thin.

In this season's recruiting class, Penn State is making the smart move by trying to sign as many linemen as possible. The last two recruiting classes have been very good, if not outright fantastic. The skill players are there for Penn State. That's not debatable. But those skill players can't operate efficiently if there isn't a battle being won in the trenches.

Linebackers and defensive backs can't run free on running plays, or have the chance to pick off errant throws, if there isn't any disruption to the run blocking or pass protection.

Running backs and receivers can't showcase their own skills if there aren't any holes to run through or if the ball never makes it past the line of scrimmage.

Many are upset at the lack of recruiting success this year. I won't make any excuses for not landing some of these good recruits sooner. But I'm also not ready to say this class will spell the demise of Penn State football as we know it.

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  1. Finally, some one who can remember the fact that we lost a lot of talent on the the D-line due to NFL/academics and not because we did not recruit them. First time I heard this point mentioned all year.

  2. It difficult sometimes for people to actually look at how situations come to be, like this defensive line drop off the last two seasons. It doesn't take much to go back, look, and realize that in 2006-07, Penn State was absolutely loaded at the defensive line position. I mean STACKED, with a full three-deep lined with potential All-Americans. Some of those guys did become AAs, but too many of them never gave themselves the chance to realize their own potential at Penn State.

    As for the O-line, that's a tougher position to figure out. Mostly because you just don't know which high school recruits are really as talented as they look coming out of HS.

    Thanks for your comment, and for reading!