Penn State dealing with offensive line uncertainty ahead of Indiana game

The headline story of this Penn State football game week has undoubtedly been the decision James Franklin faces at quarterback. However, an evolving situation regarding the group that will be asked to protect that passer also warrants attention as kickoff nears.

“Obviously we’ve got some bumps and bruises across the offensive line,” Franklin said afterward.

Additionally, though he was in uniform Wednesday, the status of Caedan Wallace is also under consideration. The right tackle hasn’t played since exiting with an unspecified injury against Minnesota. In his absence, Bryce Effner went from a supplemental piece at right tackle to the full-time starter versus Ohio State.

Effner remained entrenched at right tackle last Saturday until Fashanu suffered an apparent lower-body injury late. That led reserve Jimmy Christ into action at right tackle, while Effner flipped to the left side.

“Bryce has been here a long time and he’s done a really good job of learning all the positions,” offensive guard Hunter Nourzad said last Saturday. “That’s a really hard thing to do, especially moving back and forth from tackle to guard.”

Franklin has been complimentary throughout this fall of Effner’s work, which also includes October game reps at both guard positions. On Wednesday, he noted that Effner was likely to sustain “a bigger role” at Indiana, though it’s unclear at precisely which position that might happen.

If Wallace were to remain inactive Saturday, the obvious answer at right tackle would be for Effner to stick with his status as Option 1B of what’s been a two-player approach since Week 1. However, things become increasingly tricky if Fashanu or Wormley are unavailable, as Effner has helped fill each of those spots in recent weeks.

Wormley’s practice absence is seemingly less concerning, as he handled every snap at right guard against Ohio State and participated in a media session Tuesday morning. However, though it does happen occasionally, it’s not ordinary for a starter to be missing from our weekly viewing portion of practice without a previous indication of an issue.

Wormley was less involved Oct. 22 in the Minnesota matchup but has otherwise been an every-down lineman for Penn State since returning from an undisclosed injury that cost him the entire 2021 campaign.

“I’m extremely grateful still to be able to play, and at the ability I’m playing at,” Wormley said this week. “I just wanna take all these reps that I can take. I’m happy to do it, happy to be on the field. It’s so great.”

Across at left guard, Tengwall has missed three consecutive games since suffering a pregame injury at Michigan. He started the preceding five contests. The precise nature of that setback, or any of the others cited here, has not been addressed by Franklin publicly, but the coach did confirm that he is not ready to rule out Tengwall long-term.

Expectations are for Cornell transfer Hunter Nourzad to handle his fourth straight start at left guard. He rotated in there as a backup early this fall before missing Games 4 and 5 with his own injury issues.

“Hunter has done a nice job, he really has,” Franklin said. “He’s doing extremely well getting within the team from a cultural perspective. The coaches love him, the players love him. He’s actually getting his MBA right now, so he’s doing great there, and he’s really playing well. We’ve been pleased with him. He’s been a huge pickup for us really from a lot of different perspectives.”

Nourzad is also operating as the backup center behind Juice Scruggs, who has hardly left the field through eight matchups. If Penn State faced depth issues on the interior, particularly at right guard, freshman Vega Ioane is a strong candidate to enter his third game of the season, along with junior college addition JB Nelson. Each have accrued some game experience at guard, while Lions247 spotted Ioane handling some snap work Wednesday.

“He’s very coachable, powerful, strong, athletic,” Franklin said of Ioane last week. “We think he’s got a very bright future. We’d like to try to redshirt him if we can but we may not be able to. … You don’t say this very often but he’s strong, powerful, and he’s extremely light on his feet. He’s 340 pounds and look like he’s 315.”

Drew Shelton is another freshman linemen on standby for potential expanded responsibilities. Pennsylvania’s top-ranked high school tackle in the 2022 recruiting class, he has transformed his body to match the needs of Big Ten trenches and is viewed in high regard within team facilities.

Like Ioane, Shelton has checked into two matchups. He could face a major early-career moment in Bloomington if Fashanu is unable to play.

“He’s a guy that, if we weren’t trying to save his redshirt, would’ve played a bunch already this year,” Franklin said. “He’s done a really good job. He’s super smart, prepares extremely well. He’s gotten bigger, stronger, right around 300 pounds now. … Obviously there’s a lot of moving parts that I know you guys are asking about. We’ll see how that will factor in with him on Saturday.”

Filling the shoes of Fashanu is no easy task. The redshirt sophomore has risen to prominence as a potential top-10 overall pick in next April’s NFL Draft.

“He’s just so consistent with his approach, with his habits, with his maturity, with his drive towards being elite really in everything that he does,” Franklin said on Tuesday.

Christ, a redshirt sophomore, is the other backup tackle with game experience, though it’s largely limited to late-game duties. Our practice looks have featured him on the right side, with Shelton on the left.

Third-year Nittany Lions offensive line coach Phil Trautwein may have some mixing and matching to do against Indiana, with messy weather anticipated. Through two-thirds of the season, unit improvement has been apparent.

Through eight games, Penn State has surrendered 12 sacks, which ranks fourth among all Big Ten teams. Last season, the Nittany Lions surrendered 34 sacks in 13 games, including a conference-worst 26 in nine Big Ten matchups.

On the ground, PSU has made major improvements in yards per rush (4.8 overall; fifth in the conference) compared to 2021. Last year, only Purdue produced a average than Penn State (3.0) in Big Ten games.

“Together, we’re trying to achieve something that’s been looked down upon for us, that hasn’t been a great point for us these past couple seasons,” Wormley said this week. “So being able to improve on that every game and showing people is extremely important.”

Penn State (6-2) kicks off against Indiana (3-5) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The Nittany Lions own a 23-2 advantage in this series.

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