Penn State offensive line play will make or break Nittany Lions in 2022
Penn State did not play a traditional spring game on Saturday due to a lack of offensive linemen.
Symbolically speaking, it’s perfect.
Penn State’s success in 2022 will almost entirely contingent on whether it has enough offensive linemen. By the fall, that won’t be a literal issue as it is this spring.
But in a figurative sense, the Nittany Lions need to find 5 offensive linemen — ideally more — capable of playing at a much higher level than in 2021.
If they do, the Lions will be one of the Big Ten’s most complete offenses. And if not, Penn State will continue dropping games against teams at an Illinois level rather than contending with the big boys in the Big Ten East.
O-line play was Penn State’s biggest weakness
From a psychological perspective, it’s clear last year’s record 9-overtime loss to Illinois still casts a pall over James Franklin’s program.
The Nittany Lions opened spring practice with 2-point conversion attempts, which they notably struggled with in the jarring loss to the Illini.
But that’s a niche issue. For this team, success means getting better up front.
Penn State was a lowly 13th in the B1G in rushing, averaging 108 yards per game and 3.21 yards per carry. The latter figure ranked 117th nationally.
And if the spring game proved anything, the running backs aren’t the biggest issue here. Every Nittany Lion who toted the rock in the spring game made somebody miss when they got to the second level.
Keyvone Lee looks capable of being the feature back, and is poised for a potential breakout season. Even Devyn Ford, who had only 14 carries as a junior, looked like he will bring something to the table in 2022. And that’s to say nothing of Nick Singleton, the freshman who is the top-rated running back in the ’22 signing class nationally.
But you have to be able to walk — or in this case, block — before you can run. None of those guys will be springing big runs if they can’t get to the line of scrimmage first. Penn State allowed 92 tackles for loss last season, which was 13th in the Big Ten and 113th nationally.
And unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, the pass-blocking was even worse than the run-blocking a year ago.
Keep Clifford clean — or else
Penn State allowed a conference-worst 34 sacks in 2021. Amazingly, on a per-game basis, that was an improvement over the previous season.
Penn State gave up 28 sacks during its pandemic-shortened 9-game schedule in 2020 — an average of 3.1 per game. That was “cleaned up” to an averaged of 2.62 per game last year. That modest gain moved Penn State up from 109th nationally in sacks allowed to 93rd.
This has been a continual issue for James Franklin’s teams.
In his first 2 seasons taking over for Bill O’Brien, the Nittany Lions also allowed the most sacks in the Big Ten. The Lions showed improvement the next 3 seasons before dipping back to 13th in 2018 and 11th in 2019.
Any improvement protecting the quarterback will therefore come out of the blue, because there’s scant evidence to make it an expectation. That poses a potentially huge problem.
If the Nittany Lions are to be successful in 2022, a healthy Sean Clifford is a must.
Last season should have been enough to make that much clear.
Penn State was well on its way to a win at Iowa and a 6-0 start to the season when Clifford was injured. From there, things went sideways. Backup Ta’Quan Roberson was no match for Iowa’s defense, and the Hawkeyes rallied to win.
Roberson’s ineffectiveness was surely a factor in rushing Clifford back onto the field the following week. He didn’t look ready, and the infamous loss to Illinois ensued.
From there, Penn State sputtered to a 2-4 finish in its final 6 games. Clifford didn’t look completely right until the regular-season finale at Michigan State, throwing for 3 touchdowns and 313 yards in the 30-27 loss in the snow.
If the Nittany Lions can’t keep Clifford healthy this year, the spring game showed us that similar disappointment will ensue.
Redshirt freshman Christian Veilleux appears to have the best arm on the team, but it was all over the place in Saturday’s scrimmage. He played respectably in relief against Rutgers last season, completing 15 of 24 passes for 235 yards and 3 touchdowns. But he may not yet be at the stage of development where taking on something more formidable than Rutgers would net positive results.
That said, Veilleux is light years ahead of early enrollee Drew Allar.
Allar, a 5-star recruit who is considered the crown jewel of Penn State’s touted signing class, simply isn’t ready. His timing was off all throughout Saturday’s scrimmage — as it should be. Allar is supposed to be prepping for prom, but chose to enroll early.
For that reason, his future is still quite bright. But any optimism that he might be able to push Clifford for the starting job this fall should be quashed.
Clifford will be the man in 2022. Penn State needs him to be the man in 2022.
And that means Penn State’s offensive line needs to keep him upright in 2022.
Succeed, and this is a potential 9-10 win team in a bruising division. Fail, and that division is capable of handing out quite a few losses to go with the bruises.