Penn State Football 2024 Forecast: Reshaping the Offensive Line (2024)

Penn State offensive line coach Phil Trautwein has reshaped his position group since taking over in 2020. The Nittany Lions allowed 34 sacks in his first two campaigns but have cut that number by more than half, allowing 16 in 2023, the Big Ten’s second fewest. And at the April NFL Draft, Penn State had three offensive linemen picked for the first time since 1996.

Trautwein is starting to show his chops on the recruiting trail, too. Major in-state prospects J’ven Williams and Cooper Cousins headlined the 2023 and 2024 classes, whileDrew Shelton and Vega Ioane have blossomed into everyday starters. The offensive line is up next on our series of Penn State 2024 position forecasts.

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The Storyline

A major reason for Penn State’s dramatic improvement across the offensive line in the past two seasons? A whopping three 2024 NFL Draft selections. Left tackle Olu Fashanu (First round, New York Jets, 11th overall), right tackle Caedan Wallace (Third round, New England Patriots, 68th overall) and center Hunter Nourzad (Fifth round, Kansas City Chiefs, 159th overall) were stalwarts for the Nittany Lions and will leave major holes to fill back in Happy Valley.

Trautwein has the pieces to fill these vacancies, with some room for variation. Shelton is the heir apparent to Fashanu. Nick Dawkins has become a vocal leader at center for Penn State. With Ioane and Sal Wormley returning at guard spots, right tackle gets the most focus. Could former No. 1 Pennsylvania prospect Nolan Rucci win the spot, or will Anthony Donkoh emerge after playing in the Peach Bowl? Are there young dark horses in the conversation, like Williams or perhaps even true freshman Cousins?

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The Alphas

Since filling in five games admirably for an injured Fashanu to burn his redshirt in 2022, Shelton has become a household name. Though he underwent an offseason surgery that held him out of spring practice, Shelton should secure the starting left tackle spot. Head coach James Franklin and his staff viewed Shelton as a co-starter last season at right tackle.

In his fifth year on campus, Dawkins is the clear favorite to land the job at center. He appeared in 13 games a year ago, including special teams, but stood out late in games when he received an opportunity. Dawkins seems likely to be in the conversation for team captain, too, as he’s one of the team’s most respected players.

The Player You Don’t Know Yet

Cousins, the freshman and early enrollee. By the end of his high school career, Cousins turned himself into Pennsylvania’s No. 1 prospect and the nation’s No. 2 interior offensive lineman, at least according to the 247Sports Composite. He began his Penn State career playing center exclusively but started in the Blue-White Game at right guard in place of Wormley, who did not dress.

The buzz for Cousins has not stopped since he inked his letter of intent in December. Coaches have consistently said he’s a freshman who doesn’t look like one. Listed at 6-6, 319 pounds on the official roster, Cousins looks every bit of it in person and should compete for playing time this fall at multiple spots. It seems entirely possible he could wind up in a starting spot at some point, too.

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The Issues at the Position

As stated, the primary hole in Trautwein’s unit at the present moment is right tackle. Rucci may be the favorite, considering his prospect pedigree and that he started in the Blue-White Game, but he played only sparingly in his three years at Wisconsin. The good news? Rucci said this spring he had already gained 15 pounds after his transfer. He’s also practicing at right tackle for pretty much the first time in his life, admitting the left side was much more comfortable until recently.

With Rucci, Donkoh will make a strong case for the job. He took over for Wallace in the second half of the Peach Bowl, somewhat of a surprise at the time. But the redshirt freshman has all the measurables at 6-5 and 328, including some sneaky athleticism. He has moved around positions early in his career but will factor into the decision at right tackle.

Can Penn State Win the Big Ten with this position group?

Yes. It’s the most inexperienced Trautwein’s group has been in some time but has some proven pieces. Right tackle will be a spot of concern until someone separates, but Penn State should feel good about the other four spots across the line.

There’s also considerable depth behind the projected starters, in the form of occasional starter JB Nelson and promising second-year players like Williams and Alex Birchmeier. Ioane and Cousins both can play center should Dawkins struggle. At this point, it seems like Penn State will have success up front. It will just take time to figure out exactly how to finish the puzzle.

Max Ralph is a Penn State senior studying Broadcast Journalism with minors in sports studies and Japanese. He previously covered Penn State football for two years with The Daily Collegian and has reported with the Associated Press and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter (X) @maxralph_ and Instagram @mralph_59.

Penn State Football 2024 Forecast: Reshaping the Offensive Line (2024)
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