Whether looking ahead to November or next season, the Penn State offensive line’s status lurks as a worry that just won’t go away.

Improvements have been made this season, and they showed themselves again Saturday against Ohio State even as the Lions played without 2 starters. The front 5 held their own until the Buckeyes’ 4th-quarter onslaught that turned the Lions’ 5-point lead into a 44-31 loss.

The trouble is, 3rd-year line coach Phil Trautwein can’t seem to get new guys or deep-roster veterans ready as quickly as the established guys go down or leave. Injuries within the season are common to the game. The program’s bigger issue is year-to-year turnover. And a potential nightmare is brewing in that regard.

Olu, we hardly knew you

Left tackle Olu Fashanu, finally healthy and having emerged this season as the team’s best lineman, might be gone at season’s end. In only 9 college starts, the former 3-star recruit has played himself into a potential 1st-round NFL Draft pick, perhaps even a top 10 selection.

Head coach James Franklin revealed last week that he was scheduled to meet with the 6-6, 308-pound lineman and his parents the day after the Ohio State game. The topic: the 19-year-old’s professional future, and how soon it should begin. Because he arrived in State College during the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, Fashanu is the requisite 3 years out of high school that determines NFL Draft eligibility.

From a fan’s standpoint, it’s terribly frustrating to think Penn State’s first big-time o-line NFL Draft pick in many, many years might exit just as the unit seems to be gaining traction. Fashanu will still have 2 years of eligibility after this season is done. But he probably won’t use them.

The pros for leaving seem to outweigh the cons. He and his parents might think another year of physical and emotional maturity would serve him well before facing the grind of a 17-game regular season in the NFL. But risking injury in college despite being projected to go possibly as high as No. 5 in the draft seems dicey. I doubt NIL money for linemen covers a guaranteed multi-year pro contract, which a 1st-rounder would command.

Lions will have to reload in 2023

Not only Fashanu, but 5 of the next 6 best linemen on the roster could leave after this season. Not all of them will, but 3 of them must.

Three Lions who started against the Buckeyes — center Juice Scruggs, left guard Hunter Nourzad and right tackle Bryce Effner — will be out of NCAA eligibility after this season. Saturday’s other line starter, right guard Sal Wormley, is a redshirt junior who became a starter for the first time this season.

Regular right tackle starter Caedan Wallace, who sat out Saturday for undisclosed reasons, is also a redshirt junior. He entered the year as the team’s most experienced lineman, but quickly became its biggest question mark. After he committed penalties and ceded a sack against Purdue in the season-opener, Franklin vaguely admitted Wallace had issues.

“Obviously, Caedan’s got some things he’s got to work on,” Franklin conceded in his Week 1 postgame media session.

Immediate depth issues

Whether Wallace is dealing with an injury or something else, we don’t know, as Franklin has a policy of saying little about injuries and not posting a week-to-week depth chart.

Redshirt freshman Landon Tengwall missed his 3rd straight game Saturday. The starting left guard has been out since getting injured in warmups prior to the Michigan game.

Through its 5-0 start, Penn State had 7 offensive linemen it felt really comfortable putting on the field. Franklin said he considered all 7 essentially starters, as they all saw significant snaps week-to-week.

But Saturday against Ohio State, with the 2 aforementioned frontline players out, the Lions stuck to their new starting 5 from start to finish. There really wasn’t any other choice. The group — front left to right Fashanu, Nourzad, Scruggs, Wormley and Effner — held their own for 3 ½ quarters. Sean Clifford wasn’t sacked in the first half, and freshman backs Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton combined for 121 yards on roughly 4.7 per carry. Overall, Penn State generated 482 yards of offense, outgaining Ohio State by 30 yards.

Effner did get victimized a couple times by JT Tuimoloau, the 2021 5-star DE who had 2 sacks and 2 interceptions in a breakout performance. But otherwise, the undermanned PSU line stood strong.

Hope for the future

A week ago against Minnesota, true freshman Vega Iaone and several other reserves saw enough action to suggest Trautwein has some depth to work with for the first time in a while.

Iaone, a 6-4, 336-pound guard out of Washington state, made a splash with a pancake block in late-game action against Minnesota.

 

Described by teammates and coaches as a naturally big guy rather than one who has to work to add weight and bulk, Iaone has impressed everyone during practices.

“Every time you go up against him you’ve got to be ready,” senior defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said recently. “Because if not, he’ll punch you right in the chest. That’s how strong he is. He’s only going to get better. He’s still a young guy. … The sky’s the limit.”

Scruggs, who spent time to Iaone’s immediate left during the Minnesota game, concurred.

“You couldn’t even really tell the difference that there wasn’t a starter out there, that that was a true freshman. … He came in quite polished, to be honest, as a true freshman. And he’s just gotten better and better and better.”

Scruggs said the youngster is way ahead of where he was as a true freshman.

“He just takes everything so serious, and he’s actually preparing as [if he’s] a starter,” Scruggs said. “He wants to learn, he wants to get better. He’s going to be great player for us for sure.”

Beyond Iaone, JUCO transfer JB Nelson has earned looks late in games that were already decided. Nelson might see action ahead of Iaone in November, only because Franklin has said he’d prefer to red-shirt the freshman if possible. Iaone has seen action in 2 games so far, meaning he could play in 2 more without losing a year of eligibility.

Several others could get looks down the stretch, as Penn State should have at least a couple potential blowouts among its final 4 regular-season games.

The outlook for 2023

In the best case scenario, all those who can return do. That would cement every spot but center with a returning starter. Then Iaone, Nelson, this year’s 4-star OL Drew Shelton and 2023 4-stars Alex Birchmeier and J’ven Williams — both ranked among the top 60 overall recruits in the country — would compete to fill out the remaining starting spot and the depth chart.

In the worst case scenario, Fashanu, Wallace and Wormley all move on — and I put the odds of each of them doing so in that order. Fans would just have to hope that the next Fashanu, Tengwall or Iaone is already on the roster, or that Birchmeier and Williams can play right away.

Either way, Penn State shouldn’t regress to a 2021 level of line play, when the program ranked 13th in the B1G in rushing yards per game and per carry while also gaving up a Big Ten-high 34 sacks. In his 2nd year as OC, Mike Yurcich has adjusted the scheme to include QB-under-center formations, bunch sets and other wrinkles. Plus, Allen and Singleton, with their big-play potential, make the line measurables look much better than a year ago. As sophomores, they should deliver more of the same.

It still might be a couple more years until fans can truly be comfortable with the Lions’ talent and depth up front, but the worst does seem to be over.

That’ll feel more definite if Tengwall and Wallace re-take their spots next Saturday at Indiana and play well. And even more definite if Fashanu opts for another year of classes and football at Penn State.

The answers will trickle out over the next 4 weekends. Stay tuned.