Improving offensive line remains a top priority

UNIVERSITY PARK – There were a few surprises in Saturday’s Blue-White Game, but it came as no surprise that Penn State’s defense clearly is ahead of the offense at the conclusion of spring drills.

Quarterback Christian Hackenberg actually played longer than expected in leading the Blue team, made up of the starters on offense and defense, to a 17-7 win over the White before an estimated crowd of 68,000 at Beaver Stadium.

Hackenberg played deep into the third quarter because his primary backup, Trace McSorley, was not available. The Nittany Lions don’t have a lot of depth at quarterback, so Hackenberg – who some thought would play only a series or two – wound up getting a lot of field time.

The rising junior completed 17-of-29 passes for 180 yards, one TD and one interception. But he also was “sacked” five times, with that word being used loosely because the plays were called dead immediately when the quarterback was touched by a defender.

Still, even though probably not all five would have resulted in actual sacks during a real game, the fact that defenders were able to get that close to Hackenberg so frequently wasn’t a great sign for PSU’s offensive line.

“We’re way ahead of where we were at this point last year,” coach James Franklin said of the O-line.

Being better doesn’t exactly translate to being really good, though, not when the line is coming off a rough season in which it gave up 44 sacks.

“Obviously our defensive line still holds an advantage over the offensive line,” Franklin said. “That’s going to continue to be a work in progress and a focus throughout the offseason.

“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Franklin added. “It’s not like we’re going to be able to flip a switch and it’s going to change overnight.”

The concern about the line Saturday was that its struggles came against the second-team defense, not the starters.

“The guys we have coming back are a lot more comfortable with what we’re running,” offensive coordinator John Donovan said of an O-line that returns four starters.

The new starter on the line, left tackle Paris Palmer, has been solid this spring as a junior college transfer. But Franklin said it does take time, even with only one new starter, for the line to mesh overall.

“Paris, he worked extremely hard in the winter workouts,” Hackenberg said. “That was one of the things that really stood out was how hard he worked and how much he cared. He understands that he has a lot of work to do and a lot of catching up to do, but he’s the type of kid that I wouldn’t put it past him to be able to do so.

“We’re going to continue to work with him, we’re going to continue to stay on him and make sure that we help him as much as we can so that he can be the best player he can be because he’s got a ton of talent.”

One of the Lions’ most talented players, running back Akeel Lynch, broke off a 22-yard run against the first-team defense early on. He finished with 50 yards on nine carries.

Lynch didn’t have the best day by a running back, though, as that distinction went to redshirt freshman Nick Scott. He carried nine times for 77 yards, including a 51-yard TD against the first-team defense.

That play will make the highlight reels because Scott broke loose from a tackle in the backfield before racing to the end zone. However, it should be noted that standout defensive tackle Anthony Zettel had Scott well within his grasp and clearly let up on him since it was a scrimmage.

“Today, Nick Scott had a couple big runs and flashed, and that’s a positive,” Franklin said. “I’m really happy to see that.”

Overall, though, the coach suggested that Mark Allen had a better spring than Scott when it comes to the backup running backs.

Many people were interested in seeing the backup quarterback, McSorley, who seems to be in line to become the heir apparent when Hackenberg’s career is over. But McSorley, a redshirt freshman, did not play for unknown reasons.

Franklin doesn’t discuss injuries, so it’s unclear exactly what was going on with McSorley, who did throw on the field but wasn’t in pads before the scrimmage.

“Trace, up to last week, really, really had a strong spring,” Franklin said.

“Trace is a competitor, he does everything that he needs to do, he’s a very smart player,” Hackenberg said. “Every day he comes out and works. I love working with him. He’s going to be a really good player down the road.”

With McSorley out, true freshman Tommy Stevens played the entire game and completed 3-of-11 passes for 19 yards. Stevens, who enrolled early in January, isn’t expected to beat out McSorley for the backup job, but nothing is a given at this point.

“Tommy, considering he still should be in high school and going to his prom, I think the 15 practices he had were really good,” said Franklin, who noted the young quarterback doesn’t get rattled, knows the playbook and has good vision.

Stevens has gained about 12-14 pounds since arriving on campus, and Franklin said he probably needs to put on another 35.

McSorley wasn’t the only player who didn’t see action Saturday. Others included middle linebacker Nyeem Wartman, receivers Chris Godwin and DeAndre Thompkins and tight end Adam Breneman.

Linebackers coach Brent Pry avoided injury and provided one of the more light-hearted moments of the scrimmage. He was run over by receiver Geno Lewis on the sideline and went down, only to hop up and raise both his arms in the air to signal he was OK.

Saeed Blacknall had a strong day receiving with six catches for 71 yards and one TD, while Lewis also caught six for 61 yards.

Evan Schwan and Curtis Cothran both recorded two sacks and 2 tackles for loss, while Tarow Barney and Torrence Brown also had sacks. Bryant Harper picked off a pass by Hackenberg for the game’s lone turnover.

“We got what we wanted to get out of it,” Franklin said of the final spring practice. “We stayed healthy, which is the most important thing.”