Breaking down the battle to protect Drew Allar along Penn State’s offensive line

Penn State has plenty of depth at offensive tackle, but that has created an interesting competition for reps and snaps this offseason.
Penn State offensive linemen Nolan Rucci (72) and Cooper Cousins (50) talk before a play during the Blue-White game at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, April 13, 2024, in State College.
Penn State offensive linemen Nolan Rucci (72) and Cooper Cousins (50) talk before a play during the Blue-White game at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, April 13, 2024, in State College. / Dan Rainville / USA TODAY NETWORK

Under former offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, Penn State’s offense had plenty of issues in 2023, but the offensive line was not one of them. The Nittany Lions lacked explosives in the running game and consistency in the passing game, but the protection for first-year starter Drew Allar was reliable. Only Ohio State regularly penetrated into the Nittany Lion backfield. 

However, on a roster with plenty of continuity heading into 2024, there will be significant turnover in front of Allar. Left tackle Olu Fashanu was a first-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft and right tackle Caedan Wallace went in the third. Hunter Nourzad, last season’s starting center went in the fifth to the Kansas City Chiefs, so Penn State and new OC Andy Kotelnicki need to replace three starters. 

Nourzad may have the clearest replacement. Redshirt senior Nick Dawkins played 140 snaps at center last season and only allowed two pressures. He’ll almost certainly take the starting spot in the middle of Penn State’s offensive line next to Sal Wormley and Olaivavega Ioane at right and left guard respectively, but there will be battles at both tackle spots. 

Left tackle

Drew Shelton should be considered the favorite to win the job, but the 2022 four-star will be under serious pressure from 2023 five-star J’Ven Williams. Shelton took over for Fashanu who sat out the Peach Bowl and played 385 snaps throughout the year to Williams’s 49.

Shelton, the sophomore, split time between left and right tackle, but the extra experience exposed a lot of his flaws. In the Peach Bowl, Shelton was wholly overmatched by Ole Miss’s defensive line, allowing a staggering seven pressures in 48 pass-blocking snaps and 14 throughout the season. 

Drew Allar was constantly forced off his spot against Ole Miss and the constant pressure had the sophomore quarterback uncomfortable from the first snap. Shelton was a force in the running game, opening holes for Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton, but the passing game needs to be the priority. The Lawn Boyz will be a big part of Kotelnicki’s offense, but if this Penn State team is to reach its full potential, Allar needs to be great. 

Williams on the other hand, is weaker in the run game, or at least was a true freshman. Now, in his redshirt freshman season, he should be stronger in the trenches while maintaining his quick feet on pass-blocking sets. Shelton is still a young player, but his performance in the Peach Bowl was damning. Williams is the greater unknown, but the potential of the former five-star is tantalizing enough to earn him the starting job. I expect Penn State to go with Shelton, but I also expect that decision to reveal itself as a mistake. 

Right tackle

Bowl games no longer serve as the culmination of a season, but more as a preview of the next year, especially for a team like Penn State which focuses much of its offseason resources on retention instead of acquisition. In that Peach Bowl preview, it was Anthony Donkoh, who was originally recruited as an interior offensive lineman and was rated lower than Williams, Alex Birchmeier, and Chimdy Onoh in the 2023 class, who replaced Caedan Wallace. 

Now, on top of beating out those three other members of his recruiting class, Donkoh will need to outperform the top recruit from Pennsylvania in 2021, Nolan Rucci, who spent the past three years as a backup at Wisconsin. Even last season as a redshirt junior, Rucci played just 42 snaps for the Badgers before transferring to Penn State. 

As a true freshman, Donkoh played 95 while still retaining four years of eligibility and was more impressive than Rucci who struggled as a pass blocker in Wisconsin’s bowl game against LSU. 

Wisconsin had quality starting tackles last season, Riley Mahlman and Jack Nelson, but neither were elite and both returned to school despite being eligible for the 2024 NFL Draft. The pedigree as a 2023 five-star should play into J’Ven Williams’s favor on the left side, but in the battle for right tackle, the 2021 five-star who never panned out shouldn’t be given the benefit of the doubt. 

Penn State will have a very veteran interior offensive line, so Franklin has the opportunity to choose his two favorite young tackle prospects and develop them into multi-year starters for Allar and eventually Ethan Grunkemeyer. He should go with Williams and Donkoh, but an offensive line bookended by Shelton and Rucci feels more likely.

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