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Bodani: What will make or break Penn State

Written by Frank Bodani/York Daily Record | Dec 2, 2015 12:15 PM
Penn_state_nittany_franklin.jpg

(Undated) -- The only senior on Penn State's underwhelming offensive line smiled as he found a bit of perspective immediately after another crushing loss.

Angelo Mangiro evaluated the present while looking to the future. Amid all of the debris from a third-straight defeat, this one at Michigan State even worse than the others, he was asked when he first realized how special true freshman tailback Saquon Barkley could become.

Mangiro paused for a moment.

"When I look at a (tailback) I usually check out his legs and his calves first, and his ass," he said to a few laughs. "That's what I look for when I check out a football player. His attributes right there are phenomenal, and early on you just saw spurts of, 'Wow, this kid can do something.'"

To rush for 1,000 yards in a Big Ten season, "You need a back like Saquon who can make that guy miss who you don't have a hat for," Mangiro said about blocking. "And he's done that countless times.

"I'm going to be gone, but I know guys in the locker room, and Penn State fans are going to be fortunate to watch him the next few years."

And this is exactly where the crucial line is drawn, in a sense, concerning the appearance of Penn State's rebuilding plan.

Flashy tailbacks and anonymous offensive linemen.

Is one more important than the other as the Nittany Lions move on to 15 extra practices before a  bowl game? As they plow ahead into a third offseason of conditioning under James Franklin and his staff, this one with a new offensive coordinator yet to be named?

In the meantime, Franklin will continue collecting star skill players like Barkley, the freshman record-breaker, while trying to reinforce an offensive line that has been his program's biggest weakness.

Franklin is on course to stockpile Penn State's largest collection of game-breaking tailbacks in at least two decades. Barkley will only be a sophomore next fall and figures to at least sharpen his game, if not more. Promising Harrisburg tailback Andre Robinson will be eligible after redshirting this fall. Plus, Pittsburgh's Miles Sanders, one of the top playmakers in the nation, is verbally committed to Penn State before February's national signing day.

It almost makes you forget that senior-to-be Akeel Lynch and those youngsters Nick Scott, Mark Allen and Johnathan Thomas, are even still in the fold.

Franklin, of course, must recruit like this. You really can't afford to have only one Saquon Barkley-type to fully complete in the Big Ten East. You need someone just as electrifying and capable behind him if he's injured. And another one behind him.

And yet, where can all of that take you without a dependable, first-rate offensive line?

The thing about Penn State's struggles (14-11 record, no signature victories the past two seasons) is that a poor offensive line can be the most difficult thing to remedy. It's the toughest position to evaluate, project and recruit. And blocking is as much about technique nuances and communication among five men as it is about individual power and strength.

Even assessing blame is muddy.

Part of Penn State's bad situation goes back to 2011 when the Jerry Sandusky scandal torpedoed one recruiting class. The NCAA sanctions then blew up a second recruiting class. O'Brien's recruiting style and quick departure hurt a third-straight class.

The past four years, Penn State brought in fewer linemen than its power rivals, providing less margin for error. They did not bring in any of the highest-rated, "can't-miss" linemen, either.

So the foundation of Franklin's first two teams was compromised before he ever arrived. He was falling steadily behind coaches Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio before his first game.

On one hand, then, you understand the offensive struggles. Then again, shouldn't his line still improve over two years with the same players?

It did not. And maybe that's as good of a reason as any to hire a new coordinator. And to look for another junior college transfer in hopes of more immediate results next fall.

Most of the same cast of blockers returns in 2016, which possibly makes these the most important Nittany Lions of all to monitor: Noah Beh, Steven Gonzalez, Ryan Bates, Sterling Jenkins, Michal Menet and Connor McGovern.

They are the youngest and most promising linemen. They might be the biggest keys to bringing Penn State fully back.

Until then, it's about looking as good as you can. It's about convincing dazzling star runners to sign up without the necessary support around them right away.

It's running a balancing act that always seems leaning too far to one side.

It's the challenge that could make or break this Penn State staff, sooner than later.


This article comes to us through a partnership between York Daily Record and WITF.

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