Retooled Penn State offensive line looks to turn heads in 2021
Outside of quarterback, the offensive line is arguably the most important position group in football.
At least what most offensive line coaches would say. Especially second-year Penn State offensive line coach Phil Trautwein, who has made teaching the craft his bread and butter.
Trautwein lives and breathes winning football. It's something that he relished in as an offensive tackle for the Florida Gators — grabbing two Bowl Championship Subdivision titles in 2006 and 2008. He also played three seasons in the National Football League for the St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns (2009-11) and went on to spend an additional season on the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers' practice squads, respectively, in 2012.
"That's how I became a coach and probably why I'm here," Trautwein said. "I can express to them things that I've been through or things they haven't been — if they're going through it or haven't been through it, I've probably been through it. So, being able to relate to them, being able to show them I've had that problem with my technique and this is how I fixed it, or I can see stuff that maybe they don't see or they don't feel."
Looking to keep momentum going: Departed interior lineman Michael Menet, C.J. Thorpe and Will Fries fought throughout the 2020 season. After a rough 0-5 start to the season, Trautwein's offensive line began to get their footing with four consecutive wins. Now with Rasheed Walker, Eric Wilson, Mike Miranda, Juice Scruggs and Caeden Wallace as the projected starters on the line, Trautwein looks to keep the momentum going into 2021.
Offensive line is a position where it doesn't necessarily matter if you're doing your job, someone else's follies may hurt your team. COVID-19 made it harder for offensive lines around the nation to gel together.
"Every day we've been grinding — pass sets, run blocking — we've been working on everything," Scruggs said. "Even when we don't have anything [to do] during the summer, we would have barbecues. Just hanging out, getting to know each other, that creates that chemistry that we've got to have. That's something that we're really focusing on this year."
At 6-foot-3, 315 pounds, Scruggs possesses the ideal size as an interior offensive lineman. Scruggs sustained a broken back in a car crash that caused him to miss the 2019 season. The redshirt junior played in seven of Penn State's nine games during the 2020 campaign. He is at the forefront of getting his position group to be a cohesive unit.
Walker could be high draft pick: Walker has appeared in 26 games and made 22 starts at left tackle. Walker is expected to be a high 2022 NFL Draft pick and is seen by some scouts as the best offensive tackle prospect. Standing at 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, Walker has high expectations on himself, buoyed by the high expectations that others have placed upon him.
He had a strong 2019 campaign with 13 starts that year. All throughout the season, he bullied his opponents with explosive strength from his lower body and kept his arms extended in pass protection, keeping his hands inside on defenders and extending. He didn't show the same consistency in pass sets in 2020, as speedier rushers got the better of him. The redshirt junior left tackle is expecting to regain his stability as the protector of quarterback Sean Clifford's blindside.
"My main goal this season — all around — is just to be consistent," Walker said. "It's just play after play, game after game, that's my biggest thing that I want and what I've been working on this offseason. I have to be consistent in my workouts, my routines — from how I wake up and go about my day. That's a big part of my game."
Harvard transfer: Wilson is a senior graduate transfer from Harvard. The 6-foot-4, 307-pound guard played 22 career games at Harvard and missed the entirety of the 2020 season due to COVID-19. He made the Phil Steele Preseason FCS All-America fourth team and Steele's Preseason All-Ivy League first team.
His athleticism comes as a key component to offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich's scheme. Yurcich implements a great deal of zone blocking in his rushing attack. Wilson's versatility and familiarity with the offense's structure and style is knowledge that he believes he can pass along to his teammates.
"I like to think I'm pretty versatile, it's something that I pride myself on," Wilson said. "I really try to fit into any offense that I can, but I love coach Yurcich's offense, what I've learned about I've learned about it so far and the different styles of runs. I really think it's a good fit for any offensive lineman that's willing to work themselves. On any offensive line, you need to be thinking all of the time — what could happen, what's going to happen, whatever can happen or does happen on the play.
"With Coach Trautwein, I've never been with a coach who's more detail-oriented. So, it's pretty awesome getting that supervision from him."