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Is Phil Trautwein Making Penn State an Offensive Line School?

The offensive line coach has long been maligned at Penn State. Phil Trautwein is looking to change that.



Jan 2, 2023; Pasadena, California, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions offensive lineman Juice Scruggs (70) celebrates after running back Kaytron Allen (not pictured) scores a touchdown in the second half against the Utah Utes in the 109th Rose Bowl game at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Death, taxes, and Penn State’s poor offensive line play. Some things in life seem unavoidable.

The Nittany Lions’ woes up front have felt so consistent in recent years that the running offseason joke has become, “will the offensive line be any better this year?”

As a result, the offensive line coach has become one of the most maligned positions on the staff. James Franklin cycled through three changes at the position by his seventh season at Penn State.

When Phil Trautwein was hired before the 2020 season, it was widely viewed as one of James Franklin’s more successful coaching moves. Trautwein’s track record as a player and coach provided the clout to take the offensive line room to the next level.

Heading into his fourth season with the Nittany Lions, the narrative around the offensive line has shifted. Rather than a liability, the line is a strength and source of stability for the offense in 2023. 

Was this a natural progression, or has Phil Trautwein elevated the standard of offensive line play at Penn State? Was there ever an issue to begin with, or was the line merely a scapegoat for poor offensive performances?

By the Numbers

Quantifying offensive line performance is tricky. Football is a team sport, and various factors influence every stat. But this is particularly true for the offensive line. For example, a dynamic running back – like Saquon Barkley – can overcome the mistakes made by an average offensive line.

Nevertheless, the results are intriguing. I looked at the “stuff rate” for the running game, defined as the percentage of times running backs are stopped before or at the line of scrimmage. This can be an appropriate measurement of the line’s ability to establish running lanes from the snap. This is something that, at least anecdotally, has been an issue for Penn State in the past.

As expected, the Herb Hand years immediately following the sanctions were the worst in this area. Roughly a quarter of all runs were stopped at or before the line of scrimmage in 2014 and 2015. This earned Penn State an average national ranking of 123rd for those years.

Under Matt Limegrover, these numbers improved considerably. Between 2016 and 2019, Penn State’s average stuff rate fell to 19%, and its average yearly ranking improved to 63rd. In 2018, the Nittany Lions finished 34th nationally in this category, and in 2019, they finished 5th. It’s also interesting to note that in 2016, even with Saquon Barkley, Penn State finished 119th in the nation, with almost 24% of all runs stopped before the line. 

On aggregate, Trautwein’s lines have kept pace with his predecessor. The average annual stuff rate improved to 18%, but the average yearly ranking fell to 66th. This is undoubtedly influenced by 2021 when the Nittany Lions finished 116th nationally in stuff rate. If you needed another metric to explain how poor the Lions’ running game was last year, there’s another tool for your tool chest.

However, Trautwein elevated the line’s performance to pre-pandemic levels in 2022. Penn State finished with 16% of all runs stopped before the line of scrimmage, the third-best year on record for the James Franklin era.

I took a more straightforward approach in the passing game and looked at the number of sacks allowed by year. Once again, the offensive lines under Hand struggled, finishing on average 115th nationally with 42 sacks allowed per year. Limegrover’s units took a dramatic step forward, allowing 29 sacks per year for an average annual ranking of 74th. Trautwein has held serve, with his lines allowing 28 sacks per year and sporting an average yearly ranking of 81st. However, in 2022, Penn State finished 40th in the nation with 21 sacks allowed. This was the best performance since Franklin arrived at Penn State.

Pro Prospects

You can also measure a position coach’s success by the number of players he puts in the NFL. But the number of players drafted on the offensive line under James Franklin has been slim.

Between 2015 and 2018, only one offensive lineman was selected in the NFL Draft. Oddly enough, Donovan Smith’s 2015 2nd round selection was the highest of any lineman drafted under James Franklin. Overall, 2019 was Penn State’s most “successful” year in producing NFL-caliber linemen. Connor McGovern was selected in the 3rd round, while Ryan Bates was signed as an undrafted free agent.

While the numbers aren’t great, it’s worth noting that Smith, McGovern, and Bates are still starters in the NFL. In a way, this speaks to the foundation each established at Penn State, which has allowed them to go on to multi-year pro careers.

Phil Trautwein has had three of his linemen drafted, but all have been late-round selections. Will Fries and Michal Menet were 7th-round selections in 2021. Rasheed Walker was a 7th-round pick during last year’s draft.

If we’re trying to grade James Franklin’s offensive line coaches in terms of the caliber of pros produced, I’d call it a push. Matt Limegrover has been the only coach with enough time to develop a group of linemen throughout their careers. So, multiple coaches share credit for the development of these players. While several Nittany Lions have gone on to respectable pro careers, the number of linemen in the NFL has just been underwhelming.

Developing Depth

Recruiting and developing young talent is where the argument for Trautwein picks up steam.

Between 2015 and 2020, Penn State signed 13 four-star and nine three-star linemen out of high school, according to On3’s Consensus rankings. Since Trautwein’s first complete recruiting cycle (2021), he has either signed or received verbal commitments from seven four-stars and four three-stars.

However, the glaring omission before Trautwein’s arrival is the lack of five-star talent on the offensive line. Trautwein broke this trend in the most recent recruiting cycle by signing Jven Williams, who is a five-star talent according to On3 and 247 Sports. Penn State also signed Alex Birchmeier, a highly-rated four-star who barely missed the five-star threshold.

Further still, Trautwein has made the most of these prospects once they arrive on campus. Olu Fashanu has quickly developed into a potential top-ten NFL Draft pick, despite only making nine starts in his career. Landon Tengwall started five games in his redshirt freshman season this fall before being sidelined with an injury. Forced into action due to injuries, true freshman Drew Shelton started the final four games this season. All these talented young players will have roles in 2023, creating potentially the deepest offensive line unit in James Franklin’s tenure at Penn State.

Trautwein’s success in developing young talent has not gone unnoticed by recruits. Last week, the Nittany Lions signed Chimdy Onoh, one of the highest-rated uncommitted players remaining in the 2023 class. Penn State already has a commitment from Cooper Cousins, who is ranked as the third-best player in Pennsylvania for the class of 2024. Trautwein has also made headway in the 2025 class when he received the Nittany Lions’ first commitment of the cycle last week in the form of four-star prospect Jaelyne Matthews

Is Phil Trautwein Making Penn State an Offensive Line School? 

Has Phil Trautwein improved the offensive line play at Penn State?

Although the numbers might not be there yet, ultimately, I think the answer will be yes. Trautwein took over during the 2020 pandemic season, a challenging situation to navigate. The on-field performance may have dipped, but he restored the line to its pre-pandemic levels last year.

However, Trautwein has made his impact by elevating the standard of what can be possible up front at Penn State.

Trautwein has pulled more from his young talent on the offensive line than any of his predecessors. He will likely have the first offensive lineman selected in the first round of the NFL Draft for Penn State since Levi Brown in 2007.

Penn State has also raised its recruiting prowess. Happy Valley is quickly becoming a destination for the top linemen in the region. 

This upcoming season will be a big test for Phil Trautwein. The Nittany Lions return a tremendous amount of veteran leadership and talented depth in the offensive line room. The success of that unit in 2023 will not only impact the Nittany Lions’ playoff hopes. It will also have longstanding ramifications on what future offensive lines at Penn State can look like.

Has Phil Trautwein made Penn State into an offensive line school? No, not quite yet. But now, more than ever before under James Franklin, it can be.

Matt is a co-owner and Editor in Chief of Basic Blues Nation. Launched in 2022, Basic Blues Nation is one of the fastest-growing websites covering all Penn State athletics, with over 3.5 million readers in 2023. Matt is also a credentialed member of the Penn State football beat, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.


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