I’ve been getting a lot of questions on this through my Twitter account, but since I’ve been on and off airplanes all day, I figured I’d take this chance to get all the information I have on the Penn State offensive line situation into one place.
Here’s what I think we all know at this point:
– Andrew Nelson is out for the year.
– Brendan Mahon was injured against Iowa, hospitalized during the week leading up to the Indiana game, and would have to be considered extremely uncertain moving forward.
– Paris Palmer left the Indiana game with a knee injury, and he had his right leg heavily braced when he returned to the sidelines after halftime.
– Connor McGovern left the game at some point in the fourth quarter and didn’t return.
Head coach James Franklin didn’t say either McGovern or Palmer were out for the season, which generally indicates that as far as he knows, they aren’t. But…it also didn’t sound like he was thinking these are especially minor injuries either. Gut feeling: It would be a surprise if either played on Saturday against Rutgers.
So, Franklin said this about the line, as it might look against Rutgers: The mostly likely scenario is that the group that ended the Indiana game will start the next one. That group:
LT – Ryan Bates
LG – Derek Dowrey
C – Brian Gaia
RG – Steven Gonzalez
RT – Chasz Wright
Of those five, only Gaia would be starting in the same position he opened the season starting at. And strangely, all of them either are guards or have played guard at one point or another in the last year.
Penn State got by with those five, for sure. And it’s very likely it would get by on Saturday against Rutgers if those five play.
This whole scenario, though, gets a bit complicated when you consider the implications beyond just Saturday. Penn State is two victories and an Ohio State win over Michigan away from the Big Ten title game on Dec. 3, and frankly, it might not be able to get by that day with a patchwork line that is battling and competing and to a certain degree succeeding with what it has, but hanging by a string nonetheless.
What happens, it must be asked, if Penn State suffers another injury up front?
This brings us to Will Fries because, well, Franklin is the one who keeps mentioning Fries.
The great thing about Fries is that he’s a prototypical tackle, and Penn State is using a prototypical guard to defend quarterback Trace McSorley’s blind side. The not-so-great thing about Fries is that he’s a true freshman, and Penn State very, very obviously planned to redshirt him.
For at least a month since Nelson’s knee injury, Franklin has floated the possibility of throwing the redshirt plans aside and using Fries if he lost another tackle to a season-threatening injury. That was long before Penn State presumably lost Palmer and may have lost Mahon for extended periods.
Penn State seems to be taking measures NOT to use Fries, in fact. He didn’t make the trip to Indiana, and Franklin cryptically said he didn’t want to use Fries because of some “situations” he is in and the offensive line is in. In fact, he said that the next line of defense at tackle would probably be throwing massive redshirt freshman Sterling Jenkins in and hoping for the best.
That doesn’t quell the questions, though, because as clear as it is that he doesn’t want to play Fries, it’s as obvious that Franklin believes that, talent-wise, Fries would be his best option all things being equal.
Problem is, all things aren’t equal. Play Will Fries now, and you can’t play him when he’d likely be a really good, experienced lineman for Penn State in 2020. To use him now, it doesn’t just have to be a dire situation.
It has to be a special case.
Is this a special case? I get it: There’s a shot at the Big Ten Championship Game on the line. And with that, there’s a shot at so very much more. You don’t turn those chances away, even if you’re building for the future. You shoot for them. You throw caution to the wind.
That said, Penn State doesn’t control its own destiny in the race to Indianapolis. Michigan does. The Wolverines beat Indiana and Ohio State, it doesn’t matter if Ryan Bates or Sterling Jenkins or Will Fries or you or I are playing tackle for Penn State. Jim Harbaugh coaches against the Big Ten West champ, not James Franklin.
There’s also the matter, as Franklin pointed out Saturday, that he’d have to discuss this with Fries and his family, and while he said they’ve been ready and willing to play if need be, it’s getting late in the season. Do you burn a redshirt, and lose a full season of experience that could be gained by playing college football week-in and week-out, on a chance at something big?
A good chance at something big, sure. But just a chance.
Here’s what fans should consider before they pin too many hopes on Fries: We don’t know how good he is. We don’t. We know he’s a heralded prospect. We know the coaching staff likes his potential. But we don’t know if he’s a tackle who can compete in the Big Ten right now, or against one of the nation’s best teams in a bowl game. It’s not a lead-pipe cinch he’s better than Ryan Bates, by any means. If he was, wouldn’t he have played ahead of Paris Palmer? Or Brendan Mahon?
I’m not sure how Penn State is going to lean on this issue. I do know, it’s got to be a brutal decision. It’s an affront to a plan to build, a plan that is working to near perfection for the Nittany Lions. It’s a decision for the present that has to be made by a program that planned all along to look at the future this season.
But, things changed. This is a whole new world Penn State is venturing into. And these are the decisions that guys like Franklin get paid the big money to make. There isn’t an easy call here, despite what many fans think.