April 13, 2011

Blue-White Game Preview '11: Offensive & Defensive Lines

This post is part 3 of 5 this week previewing the major position groups heading into the Blue-White scrimmage this Saturday in Beaver Stadium.

Part 3: Offensive & Defensive Lines

2010 Penn State vs Illinois-44
See this? Yeah, this shouldn't happen.
Oh man, the offensive line? Do I really have to do this?

But alas, here we stand, the final week of spring practice, and both of the two most important groups on this team are in trouble. At least, I guess, they're in different kinds of trouble. Not that that makes it any better.

The offensive line was one of the toughest positions for Penn State to develop the last two seasons, with 2009 scraping by on inexperienced talent, and 2010 pushing along with injuries and even less experienced talent. This season could be better, or it could be the same. The only way it could get worse along the offensive line is if returning starters--there are actually four of them this year--don't make any improvement whatsoever. Then it's time to worry.

Possibly worse than the offensive line, how about the defensive line? I can't believe there would come a day when the defensive line wasn't one of the positions I look forward to writing about.

For a unit like the D-line, it's become much more than just a problem of finding the right combination. The defensive line this season--compared to the downright lethal units Penn State managed to produce for about seven years until 2010--is in nothing more than shambles. Injuries and two years of unexpected attrition have absolutely destroyed the unit's depth, something that was long a critical factor in its success under Larry Johnson. Unless some young bucks really rise to the occasion this spring and summer, it could be another rough season stopping the run and getting to the quarterback.

More after the break.


Head on over to any of the popular message boards. Go ahead, I'll wait till you're there. Okay? Now go down the threads. I guarantee you'll see at least one about how the offensive line sucks and the entire offensive line staff should be fired.

No, I'm not saying anything on the boards should be taken seriously. But there is a reason why "crappy" has become part of the public's lexicon when discussing Penn State's offensive line outside of its traditional every-third-season success. Iowa 2009. Ohio State 2009. Most of 2010, especially against teams with a defensive pulse. The offensive line has underperformed when faced with even the slightest hint of defensive talent. I'm not dumb enough to say that there aren't reasons for these performances. Offensive line is probably the toughest group to recruit, develop and get to perform well together in live games against real opponents.

Heading into the final week of spring practice, Joe Paterno said last week that he's not pleased with where the offensive line is at this point, saying "We don't have a good solid first string offensive line yet." But that's not to say there isn't a first string offensive line at all. That's what we're going to go over today, what you will probably see this Saturday.


The starting, "Blue Team" this Saturday, tackles are the easiest to project, at least for this weekend. Quinn Barham at left tackle and Chima Okoli at right tackle, both seniors are the unquestioned starters at those positions. Barham and Okoli have proven they can do the job and do it well. In a drastic change from 2009, the tackle position looks to be one of the strongest in the entire offense.

Behind those two are junior Mike Farrell, and sophomores Adam Gress and Eric Shrive. Farrell saw some limited time last year, starting the Indiana game. Gress and Shrive combined for two games played last season. I'm anxious to see which of those three get the "starting" jobs on the White Team this Saturday. For third string, look for Nate Cadogan on the right and Tom Ricketts on the left.

2010 Penn State vs Youngstown State-51
This is likely DeOn'tae Pannell's last
shot to entrench himself as a starter.

There's no easy way to pick which potential trainwreck I want to cover first--the guards or centers. So I'll just flip a coin and go with the guards. Johnnie Troutman has been in Joe Paterno's dog house for almost his entire career, despite being one of the most talented guards on the team. Troutman started the final 11 games of the 2010 season and has made 19 career starts. Though he got into some trouble earlier this spring, it looks like he's made up with Paterno and is running with the 1's. At right guard, John Urschel has broken away from the pack to earn the starting spot this spring. He's an excellent student, which goes a long way towards earning Paterno's respect.

Behind Urschel is senior DeOn'tae Pannell. Pannell has been more than underachieving in his four years on the team. He's started nine games the last two seasons, including the last three of 2009 and the Capital One Bowl win at left guard, and has seen action since 2008. But Pannell has never been able to lock down a starting job at either guard or tackle. This is his final chance. Also on the White Team for this weekend is right guard Alex Mateas. But before you start screaming "He didn't get any stars from the recruiting sites!" remember that Mateas is from Canada, where the scouting isn't as thorough as in the States. On the third team right now you will likely see redshirt freshman Khamrone Kolb at left guard and sophomore Mark Arcidiacono at right guard get plenty of reps on Saturday. These are the guys who will wear pull-over jerseys and switch teams at points in the game.


2010 Penn State vs Illinois-84
Matt Stankiewitch will likely handle
the first team snaps this weekend.
Now for the final position on offense: the centers. While Doug Klopacz wasn't the greatest to ever snap the ball, he was definitely steady in the middle. But now he's gone, and an unproven buck will have to step in to take over the only position that touches the ball on every single offensive play of the season. As of this week, redshirt junior Matt Stankiewitch, a backup guard in 2009 then center in 2010, has been practicing on the first team. There were some issues this week with errant shotgun snaps, so it will be an interesting outing this weekend in front of tens of thousands of fans. The backups for "Stank" are likely redshirt freshman Miles Dieffenbach and sophomore Frank Figueroa.


As opposed to the offensive line, where inexperience is the problem, lack of depth is something to worry about this season along the defensive line. Attrition has been a huge part of that, but more recently injuries and suspensions have decimated this unit. Jack Crawford, Eric Latimore and Sean Stanley--all starters at one point last season--all missed time in 2010. And just when those guys were nearing full strength this spring, starter Pete Massaro went down with a torn ACL and will miss the entire 2011 season. This has caused more shake up on the interior, as tackles have been forced to play at end. It's just not a fun place to be right now for the entire unit.

The Tackles

Up the middle, Penn State is looking decent at defensive tackle, but mostly due to one big-time player. Devon Still at the 3-technique (main DT, lined up between the C and G) is poised for a huge season, reminding me a lot of Jared Odrick in 2009. Still missed only one start last year. He was usually neglected by opposing offensive lines, as they had to guard Ollie Ogbu. But in his new role as the play-making tackle on defense, Still could blossom. It will be interesting to see how he fares against the first-team offensive line this weekend, particularly the inexperienced right guard and center, which is exactly where the 3-tech tackle lines up. Moving into the other, "1-technique" spot will be Jordan Hill, who played as a regular substitute in 2010. He's short but agile, similar to Ogbu. Hill was forced outside for a few games last season, but that didn't work very well. He will likely perform well in his role alongside Still.

2010 Penn State vs Illinois-68
James Terry is a top candidate
for the two-deep tackle rotation.
Backing up the starters, but on the opposing White Team this weekend, youngsters like DaQuan Jones and Evan Hailes, and old hats like James Terry and Brandon Ware will see plenty of time going up against the first team offense. Jones has been practicing with the defensive ends this spring, but he's still meant to be a tackle, with Joe Paterno saying as much in his press conference. But I'm looking forward to seeing Hailes get more action this year, as he was in for the spring last year.

Terry and Ware are down to their last shots to make a serious impact on the defense, and this year wouldn't be a moment too soon. Terry actually started the Indiana game last year, and played well as a regular substitute for Still. Ware has finally gotten his act together, according to Paterno himself, even losing some of that Big Mac poundage. If he's indeed ready to rumble this season, we'll see it this weekend. One last guy you should watch for during the game is Luke Graham. He's a converted offensive lineman, and Penn State has a pretty decent track record of swapping offensive and defensive linemen to the opposite side of the ball.

2010 Penn State vs Illinois-67
Don't be surprised to see DaQuan Jones play
both inside and outside along
the defensive line Saturday.
The Ends

On the outside, the loss of Massaro will hurt, but the defensive ends are more vulnerable to lack of depth than anything else. Even without Massaro, it would have been rough trying to find enough capable bodies to fill an entire three-deep lineup that Penn State needs to run its system up front. There will still be Jack Crawford on the strong side and Eric Latimore on the weak side. Barring more injuries to those two, it should be a very good season for the two incumbent starters.

Behind them, however, it gets sketchy. Sean Stanley couldn't stay out of trouble last season, following an impressive freshman season in 2009. Stanley could be a guy who breaks through to the starting lineup, if he just worries about playing football and nothing else. Penn State also will be relying on two second-year players, the first being Kyle Baublitz and the next being C.J. Olaniyan. Baublitz was on track to redshirt the 2010 season (he is technically a "grayshirt" because he was on the team last spring), until the coaches burned it for time against Michigan State. It was an odd move, but one that can't be retracted now. Olaniyan did maintain his redshirt last season, and has gotten a good deal of praise out of practice. Those two will likely make up the "starting" White Team defensive ends. So we will see plenty from them in the spotlight Saturday.

Two other names you could hear this weekend are Brian Irvin and Brad Bars. Irvin is a former reserve linebacker. It doesn't take a big stretch of the imagination to figure out his move to end is to add some depth for the position this spring. Bars is a redshirt freshman.


So it's not the end of the world. But 2010 wasn't a very pleasant experience along the lines. The only real hope going into 2011 is that each of these units can turn their experience into production on the field, and maybe realize some more of that talent so many expected from both of these groups.

I want to see a unit that can block. Duh. But most importantly, the offensive needs to show it can run block. This offense this year will need to rely on the running backs, just as it did last year. But this year, there are fewer excuses for bad run blocking.

Of course, if the defensive line does well, the we'll be shaking our heads at the offensive line. This battle should result in a draw, which would be a victory in my view. The offensive line is probably better off right now in terms of talent than the defensive line. Though the cohesion on offense is something that can't be developed in just 15 practice sessions in the spring.

The defensive line under Larry Johnson feeds off of using fresh bodies to keep the starters well-rested and dangerous to opposing offenses. That wasn't possible last year with so many missing key players, and it could be a problem once again this season. The ideal situation is to see the starters really have an impact on the game this weekend, while the backups don't make any noticeable mistakes.

Stay tuned tomorrow morning for Part 4: The Linebackers

Part 1: Offensive Backfield
Part 2: Receivers & Tight Ends
Part 3: Offensive & Defensive Lines
Part 4: Linebackers
Part 5: Secondary & Special Teams

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  1. A few corrections:

    1. How does the attrition of the 2006 class (Taylor, etc.) affect this year's team? They wouldn't be on the squad.

    2. Evan Hailes is injured and will not play in the game.

    3. Bars is at LB.

  2. Okay, I can see where you're coming from.

    1. I guess I mean more to reference that in recent years, attrition has killed the defensive line. I should have made that more clear.

    2. Yup, I forgot about Hailes.

    3. Bars is the kind of player that is able to play both LB and DE. With the OLB's very strong this year, and DE's very thin, I wouldn't be surprised to see him take reps on the end, even in a stand-up role.

    Thanks for reading and the comments.

  3. I almost forgot...Baublitz did not play last year. That was an error in the scorebook. He still has his redshirt.

  4. And...thanks for writing. It's a fun read.

  5. Yeah, the Baublitz thing was weird. It would have been really dumb for the coaches to burn his redshirt that late in the year, especially when it wasn't exactly a BCS bowl on the line or something vs MSU.

  6. I remember there being a lot of confusion after the game, but the mods on FOS confirmed it was a clerical error.

    I'll also add that I think the DL will (pleasantly) surprise this year. As long as they stay healthy, I think will see marked improvement over last year's mediocre showing.