Seeking reason for optimism about Penn State's offensive line? Position coach Herb Hand suggests a primer from Tulsa, circa 2007.
Seven years ago, Hand coached an offensive line as raw as his current group at Penn State. But Tulsa averaged 544 yards (tops in the nation) and 41 points (sixth) under Hand and his co-offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn. Of course, Malzahn's no-huddle is at Auburn now.
Though Penn State (probably) won't run a similar no-huddle offense, Hand sees a line whose development could accelerate as quickly as the Tulsa group.
"We call them balls of clay," Hand said of his current linemen. "You can really mold and shape them into what you want them to be."
An inexperienced line will be among Penn State's prime benchmarks on offense this season, though the ever-optimistic Hand is grading on the positive. The Lions are likely to start two former defensive linemen at guard in the season opener against Central Florida, along with a redshirt freshman at right tackle.
Still, Penn State's line is more "marinated," as head coach James Franklin calls it, than Hand's group at Tulsa in 2007. That year, Tulsa competed with a converted defensive lineman playing left tackle, a brand new right tackle, a center with no game experience at the position and a right guard who hadn't played a meaningful down. Only the right guard was a known commodity, having started 11 games the previous season.
Sound familiar? Penn State's projected starting line has made a combined 20 starts, all by left tackle Donovan Smith. Right tackle Andrew Nelson is a promising redshirt freshman who nearly worked his way into the lineup last year.
Since Miles Dieffenbach is out with a torn ACL, the starting guards likely will be converted defensive linemen Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia. Center Angelo Mangiro played 12 games and three positions last year, giving him a head start on 2014.
Hand and Franklin nonetheless expect the line to become among the offense's strengths. They also know getting there will take time.
When he took over in January, Franklin didn't fully realize the numbers crunch regarding scholarship linemen. The coach acknowledged "major depth issues" on the line, which included just three tackles on scholarship this spring.
As a result, Franklin said he'll have to adjust his normal approach regarding linemen.
"Ideally, you'd like to take a guy who's 6-5, 6-6, 270 pounds, plays high school basketball, is really athletic, then get him with our [strength and conditioning] guys," the coach said. "You let him marinate for a year, and now you've got a guy who's 300 pounds, lean and athletic.
" But we're just going to throw some Lawry's salt on them now. There's not going to be a whole lot of marinating and putting in the fridge for a while. That's just kind of where we're at."
For Hand, that means getting linemen ready to play multiple positions. The line coach wants his right tackle, likely Nelson, to be the second-best left tackle in case of injury. Hand added that, in a perfect world, his group would include three prepped tackles and four interior linemen.
The Nittany Lions look to be fairly stable inside, with Wendy Laurent working into a center rotation with Mangiro. At tackle, Hand likely will have to develop help from freshmen such as Chaz Wright and Chance Sorrell.
Smith, whom former coach Bill O'Brien projected as an NFL tackle, said the linemen have insulated themselves through team-building exercises such as golf and eating. "When you get 10-12 fat dudes together, heads start turning," Smith said of their restaurant visits.
"We all use it as motivation. People are going to talk about you good or bad, so why not have them talk about you? Hey, keep talking. That's more of a showcase for us to prove the doubters wrong."
Hand, who coached linemen at Tulsa and Vanderbilt before joining Franklin at Penn State, said he takes pride in the position. He noted that offensive line is the only position for which the NCAA mandates field five players.
As his linemen develop, Hand said they'll shift from a perceived question mark to a perceived exclamation point.
"Right now, we have to prove people wrong," Hand said. "Eventually, you'd like to get to where you have to prove people right."