Penn State has taken the first step toward offensive line recovery — it has admitted it has a problem. Let’s hope the solution doesn’t involve 12 steps or an appeal to a higher power. The program doesn’t have that kind of time and probably not that kind of pull.

Hi, my name’s PSU O-line, and I can’t run block, I can’t pass protect, can’t help get a tough yard when it really matters.
Welcome, O-line, keep coming back. It works if you work it. 

Head coach James Franklin and his staff, oh, they’re working it all right, along with the young men in question.

Step one came in late July, when Franklin fessed up to the problem at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis. Without any prompting, during the opening statement of his opening session in front of the microphones and cameras, the 9th-year Nittany Lions coach said he wouldn’t sugarcoat the problem or promise improvement.

“I’m not going to do that this year,” he said. “I’m going to let them prove that to you on the field. But I’m very, very pleased with that unit and the depth that we have created.”

There has been an influx of talent in recent years, and there’s more on the way. But so far, the line remains clearly less than the sum of the parts. And that’s definitely not a secret anymore.

“I know Penn State has had a lot of backlash about their offensive line,” prized 2023 OL recruit J’ven Williams said recently in an extensive interview with 247Sports. “We really want to change what’s going on, especially at the O-line position.”

Yep, there’s no way of denying the problem coming off a season in which Penn State finished last in the Big Ten in sacks allowed (34), 13th in rushing yards per game (108.0) and 13th in tackles for loss allowed (92). The line has been backpedaling since Franklin arrived and installed his spread offense. Truthfully, it’s been backpedaling — with occasional exceptions — since joining the Big Ten almost 3 decades ago.

The problem really came to a head last season, and well before the 2-6 finish that dropped the Lions from No. 4 in the AP poll to unranked. I expressed my worry in writing 3 times in the span of a month — while the Lions were still undefeated:

So now that the issue is out in the open and Franklin and company have taken Step 1, what comes next? How does Penn State get better up front?

Get off Phil Trautwein’s back … for now

Trautwein arrived in State College to take over as offensive line coach in 2020, but after that recruiting class was wrapped up. Those were not his chosen guys up front as the Lions went 11-11 over the past 2 seasons. Those guys signed on to play under Matt Limegrover.

No, Trautwein doesn’t get a complete pass. Nor does he need one. Two starters from the 2020 line got selected in the NFL Draft, and another went in the 2021 draft. Granted, they all went in the 7th and final round. And Rasheed Walker regressed drastically last year, for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with Trautwein.

The point is, only the first little bit of Trautwein’s foundation has been laid. And it includes a really good piece — 2021 top-100 recruit Landon Tengwall, who is expected to start at left guard this season as a redshirt freshman. Several Penn State insiders think he’ll be the team’s best lineman this year, and probably could have played more last year.

This year’s No. 6-ranked class includes 4-star Drew Shelton, who ranked just outside the top 100 as the No. 122 overall talent in the nation. Next year, 4-star Williams arrives along with 5-star interior lineman Alex Birchmeier, both ranked among the top 61 players in the country. Williams already is promising to enroll early, so eager is he to provide help as soon as possible. Birchmeier is ranked the No. 1 interior offensive lineman in the country and 4th-best lineman overall. Williams is 7th overall.

At 36, Trautwein is just getting started in coaching. A decade ago, he was still playing in the NFL. Before that, he was helping Florida to the 2008 national title as an all-SEC left tackle. Does that mean he knows what he’s doing as a coach? No. But it’s  probably worth waiting a few more years to find out. The program has had 4 OL coaches in the past 10 seasons. Obviously, rapid-fire turnover hasn’t worked.

Stay patient, trust the process, build

Whether Trautwein’s charges can do any better than Limegrover’s … that’s the question. And that answer won’t come for a couple more years. The best fans can hope for now is to see progress.

Most OL recruits shouldn’t be seeing significant snaps until Year 3, their redshirt sophomore season. Take it from former PSU lineman Keith “Goon” Conlin, one of the key components of the undefeated 1994 team.

“To have a guy come in as a true freshman and play right away is really tough. It’s sooo tough,” Conlin said on an episode of the Goon and Ironhead podcast. “I mean, you’re 18 years old. Sometimes 17. As an offensive lineman, that should not be expected.”

There are rare exceptions, and maybe Birchmeier and Williams can be ones.

But playing teenagers too soon is risky. Psyches can be fragile.

“You start getting your ass kicked on a regular basis, on a daily basis, on a play-by-play basis, you’re going to lose confidence,” Conlin said. And once it’s gone, it can be hard to get back.

Still, the hope has to be that, sooner rather than later, the latest batch of elite recruits pays off.

“It’s been like this pressing issue forever,” Conlin said on a recent podcast. “It’s never really been acknowledged and gone after to fix. We’re not building talent. We’ve started younger guys, we’ve started older guys. We have not had that team [that can] come out and kick anybody’s ass.”

Change the game plan

The guys who will start Sept. 1 against Purdue need help right now.

“I think you have to be willing to call the game in a certain way,” Franklin said Aug. 6 at Penn State’s media day. “There’s things that you can do to help with the offensive line.”

He talked about running more to wear down defenses, moving the pocket and altering cadences.

It’s a tradeoff, though. Tinker too much, and you’re no longer running the true spread offense that has churned out a succession of NFL-caliber receivers and tight ends. The elite programs have found the balance. Ohio State had true freshman TreVeyon Henderson top 1,200 yards rushing while also having 3 superstar wideouts combine for 3,600 yards receiving.

The strong Penn State lines of previous generations had some luxuries the current group does not enjoy. They had a sixth member, for one thing, a fullback. (Fullback, n., a player who lines up in the backfield and predominantly serves as the lead blocker for the other running back.) Also, they played in a run-first scheme, which allowed the guys up front to rumble downhill more often than not.

Fullbacks and run-first attacks are relics. They don’t work in modern football, unless your ultimate goal is merely to win the B1G West or join the Air Force or the Army. But teams can shift a tight end into the backfield, as Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich did at times last season. And they can occasionally put the quarterback under center rather than in the shotgun, which Yurcich also experimented with last year. Shoot, they can even put 7 or 8 linemen on the field at once and pound away like Bret Bielema and Illinois did in their 20-18, 9-OT victory over the Lions last October.

In his second year working alongside Trautwein, Yurcich needs to find some ways to put the linemen in better positions to succeed.

Then, it will be up to the self-described “fat boys” to prove they can.

The expected starting lineup is as follows:

LT: Olu Fashanu, sophomore, 6-6, 321. A 3-star recruit (No. 405 overall) in 2020. Made his first career start in place of Rasheed Walker in the Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas last year.
LG: Landon Tengwall, RS freshman, 6-6, 332. A 4-star recruit (No. 54 overall) in 2021. Appeared in 3 games last year.
C: Juice Scruggs, RS senior, 6-3, 310. A 4-star recruit (No. 233 overall) in 2018. Started every game last year, mostly at guard. Appeared in 8 games prior to 2021, missing all of 2019 for health reasons.
RG: Sal Wormley, RS junior, 6-3, 298. A 4-star recruit (No. 287 overall) in 2019. Missed all of last season with an injury. Has appeared in 4 games. Coach James Franklin has said he probably would have started last year if he were healthy.
RT: Caedan Wallace, RS junior, 6-5, 324. A 4-star recruit (No. 81 overall) in 2019. Clearly the veteran of the group, Wallace has made 20 starts at RT over the past 2 seasons, including all 13 games last year.

“Those guys have been very physical, their attitudes have been exceptional and their effort has been tremendous,” Yurcich said of the linemen just a couple days into fall camp. “They’re coming off the ball extremely well. Coach Trautwein’s done a hell of a job getting those guys ready. … Where we’re at right now — we love it.”

Find a piss-and-vinegar leader

The body language tells the story. Anyone who watched PSU’s O-line last year saw it: This was not a confident bunch. They looked more demoralized than angry about their struggles. There didn’t seem to be a leader, vocal or otherwise.

Last year, Walker was supposed to be that guy, touted as a potential early-round draft pick. But by the second half of the season, he looked more like a matador than an NFL-ready left tackle. Whatever the issue, injury or indifference, he did a terrible job protecting Sean Clifford’s blindside or looking like he cared.

Trautwein and his players insist the vibe will change this year.

“I think the culture in the room is probably the best it’s ever been,” the third-year PSU line coach said. “We have great talent. … We have kids that love football. So for me, I think the culture in the room is the best it’s ever been.”

Sal Wormley, the 6-3, 298-pound likely starter at RG, is even promising a little nastiness. Don’t be fooled by an easy-going off-field demeanor, he told a recent interviewer for Lions247.

“On the field it’s different,” he said. “I’m a big dude. I can’t be just aggressive with everybody [off the field]. … On that field, I can do whatever I want.”

That’ll be music to the ears of Conlin and former Penn State and NFL defensive tackle Brandon Noble, another ex-PSU trench warrior turned media/podcast truth-teller.

Here’s what Noble had to say after last year’s loss to Illinois:

“If I was playing on that defense, I would walk into the locker room and punch every one of those [13 letters, rhymes with other truckers] on offense in the face. We’d have fought. At some point [during the ensuing] week, I am fighting one of those assholes, because they left me out there on that field to die. And that’s bullshit.”

Specifically, his point was, the line and running backs needed to produce more than 10 points in regulation against the worst defense in the Big Ten at the time. Gaining a mere 62 rushing yards and allowing 4 sacks of your banged-up QB just can’t happen at home, on Homecoming, against the Illini.

“There would be a fight at some point. … And maybe that’s what needs to happen. … Sometimes that’s what it takes,” Noble continued. “I’m gonna go into that locker room … ‘look man, you guys better get your shit together.’ … That can be a good thing if it’s done the right way. … I can guarantee you, drinking beers after that game, there would have been some foul words said toward those guys about what kind of men they are — probably things that will get people in trouble these days.”

Noble’s rant came as part of The Obligatory PSU Podcast, but he’s far from a lone ex-Lion when it comes to noticing Penn State’s soft spots. Conlin delivered similar analysis after the Lions converted only 1 of 7 2-point tries in the new overtime format vs. the Illini.

“You can’t get 3 fricking yards?” Conlin asked. “That’s horribly embarrassing. It’s just frustrating beyond belief. … It’s an ongoing thing. This has been James’s whole career. You take away Saquon Barkley, and what have we really rushed for in 7 or 8 years? … James has never had a good offensive line. If you have these big star recruits … but they’re still not performing on Saturday 3 years after their recruiting day, then does it go back to a coaching thing? … Are you recruiting the wrong type of guys? There’s questions that need to be asked.”

Wormley says he and his teammates are ready to answer.

“Competition’s been great,” Wormley said to Lions247. “[It] definitely made the room better. … A lot of players are being more aggressive, more nasty, fighting, trying to get that spot.”

Hope the new RBs are the real deal

Keyvone Lee, Penn State’s top back the past 2 seasons, is not the problem. But nor is he the solution for what ails Penn State’s running game. Lee has averaged a team-best 4.9 yards on limited carries since 2020, but he has none of the freakish skills that enabled Barkley to thrive despite a weak line. Jump cuts, hurdles and breakaway speed aren’t parts of Lee’s game.

Last year, PSU ranked 112th in the nation in runs of 10+ yards (44) and tied for 121st in runs of 20+ yards (8). Only 4 teams had fewer 20-yard rushes than the Lions. When it came to really big jaunts, 50+ yards, the Lions had none — one of 20 teams with that distinction. Back when Barkley last played for PSU, in 2017, the team had 5 rushes of 50+ yards, 4 of 60+, 2 of 80+ and even 1 of 90+.

Want to make an offensive line feel good about itself? Pad the stats with some monster rushing plays.

Early-enrollee freshmen Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen, both highly touted recruits, might be able to bring that element back to the PSU attack. Singleton, in particular, brings quite the resume: 5-star top RB recruit in the country and Gatorade National Player of the Year.

Some backs need a succession of quality blocks to find daylight, others just need one lineman to screen a key defender for a split second. If Singleton and Allen can be backs of the latter variety, Penn State’s line might look a whole lot better. And then it becomes symbiotic; the line and backs feed off each other, and both rooms find their confidence soaring.

Starting the season at Purdue, rather than at Wisconsin against the Badgers’ stout defense like last year, might facilitate just such a happening.

Understand the new dynamics

Success up front isn’t going to look like it did at Penn State before the turn of the century. Using superior size and talent to steamroll all but 1 or 2 opponents every year hasn’t often worked for PSU since it joined the Big Ten in 1993. And it doesn’t work for almost anybody else, either.

Only a select few programs — Michigan and Alabama last year, for example — can impose their will on opponents with brute strength. Otherwise, it’s a read-and-react game. A finesse game. Big man’s ballet.

That said,  Penn State needs to holds in own in at least one aspect of line play. The big boys can’t stink at run blocking and also give up a league-high in sacks. Some realistic goals for this season would be to finish in the top half of the league in sacks allowed and average better than 4 yards per rush.

Everyone has to help

Sean Clifford, Penn State’s 4th-year starter at quarterback, doesn’t have the escape-ability of predecessor Trace McSorley. But he can avoid negative plays by making hot reads, decisively exiting a collapsing pocket for a couple tough rushing yard, and throwing the ball away when necessary. Not all sacks are avoidable, but many are.

The tight ends and backs (and even occasionally the receivers) must provide strong support blocking when called upon.

The coaching staff needs to make sure no one is tipping plays, an issue that came up a couple of times last season.

Re-think recruiting

Since Trautwein’s arrival, Penn State is bringing in leaner, more athletic (but still quite large) guys to stock its offensive line.

Tengwall left high school at 6-6, 300 pounds. A couple years later, he’s slated to start at left guard at 332. Shelton, this year’s top line recruit, is listed on the team’s official roster at a svelte 6-5, 279. Birchmeier and Williams, the top 2 overall players in PSU’s 2023 class, both will play their senior high school seasons at 285 pounds. Birchmeier is 6-5 and was a state champion wrestler in Virginia as a sophomore. Williams, 6-4, excels in track and field as well as football, according to 247Sports’ profile of him.

Penn State has had athletic big men in the past, but it has also taken more than a few flyers on 300+ pound teenagers who dominated the prep ranks on size alone. It’s rare that one of those guys develops into someone who can match up with the likes of Michigan’s 2021 dynamic edge rushing duo of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. Or Penn State’s own edge rushing beast from last year, Arnold Ebiketie, who racked up 9.5 sacks at a freakishly athletic 6-3, 256.

Also, Penn State has made few inroads into the hotbeds of O-line recruiting: the Midwest, the farm belt, Texas and the rest of SEC country. Of the 20 OLs on the Lions’ roster, 15 come from Pennsylvania (6), Maryland (4), New Jersey (2), New York (2) or Virginia (1). There are 2 from Georgia, including Cornell transfer Hunter Nourzad. At other positions, Penn State has worked itself into Florida, Alabama, Michigan and Texas for high-level talent. But other than 1 player each from Illinois and the state of Washington, Penn State has not gone far and wide to find its offensive linemen.

Meanwhile, at places like Iowa and Wisconsin, those programs regularly turn 2-star prospects and even walk-ons into 10-year NFL linemen. And Ohio State starts 2022 with the best line in college football, according to Pro Football Focus.

At Penn State, the young guys on the roster and coming soon to the roster seem like can’t-miss prospects, and they better be for the sake of Trautwein and his bosses.

Embrace the desperation

This narrative must change. Everyone at Penn State from Franklin on down is acknowledging that sober realization. Jobs are on the line. Penn State’s reputation as a proud, storied program is on the line, as is its ability to keep attracting 105,000+ spectators to Beaver Stadium for home games. Keep playing .500 football, and the school won’t be able to sell enough beer inside the stadium to keep fans happy. Backs of Singleton’s stature won’t continue to sign up to join a team that can’t open holes to set up productive touches. Quarterbacks such as current 5-star freshman Drew Allar will be reticent to get repeatedly blown up like former 5-star Christian Hackenberg did from 2013-15.

In this age of wild and rapid change within the sport, on the field and off, Penn State needs to find a way to ground itself the old-fashioned way, up front, before it’s too late. “It all starts up front” is as true as it is tired.

Everyone — coaches, teammates, even fans — needs to find the right combination of tough love, encouragement, strategy and instruction to make OL a position of strength and respect in Happy Valley.

Over the past decade, the program’s other position groups have all flourished and produced star players at various times. Notably, Micah Parsons led a renaissance at linebacker after a 5-plus-year down period for that group. Trace McSorley became PSU’s all-time passer, touchdown producer and winner at quarterback. Barkley reminded all of college football how an elite Penn State running back can capture the nation’s attention. Mike Gesicki and Pat Freiermuth made short lists of the best tight ends in the college game. Receiver Jahan Dotson earned a first-round selection in the NFL Draft just this year. Ebiketie extended the recent pass-rush tradition, following in the footsteps of Carl Nassib and Yetur Gross-Matos.

The O-line room needs to take its turn, and soon. Like maybe starting Thursday night at Purdue.