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Smeltzer: As Penn State’s Offensive Line Gains Talent, Phil Trautwein Deserves to Gain Some Trust

CHESTNUT HILL, MA - OCTOBER 26: Boston College Eagles assistant coach Phil Trautwein talks to head coach Steve Addazio. During the Boston College game against Miami at Alumni Stadium on October 26, 2018 in Chestnut Hill, MA. (Photo by Michael Tureski/Icon Sportswire)

Penn State’s coaching staff has been under scrutiny over the past two seasons.

11 wins in 22 games will do that.

In college football, the food chain of lightning rods for criticism usually looks something like this

The head coach is the one who takes the most heat, and James Franklin is no exception. The dubious silver medal usually goes to either the quarterback or one of the coordinators. Both Sean Clifford and Mike Yurcich had some choice words said and typed about them over the past year.

After that, the next most criticized person could be anybody. In Penn State’s case, I’d say that person is offensive line coach Phil Trautwein.

To put it professional wrestling terms, many Penn State fans see Trautwein as a heel character.

Like all widely-criticized figures, some of the flack Trautwein gets is deserved, and some of it is overboard. In any case, every Penn State fan knows the offensive line hasn’t been good enough. There were times last season when Penn State couldn’t get anything going on the ground, and also times when Clifford was getting knocked down more than Chumbawumba.

But over just the past week, Trautwein and Franklin have established that they know the offensive line hasn’t been good enough, either.

And Penn State might get a lot better as a result.

In just five days, Penn State signed a lineman for the 2022 class, got a commitment for the 2023 class and got a hoss from the transfer portal that could well be starting Week 1 at Purdue.

It started with a signing day surprise when three-star Vega Ioane from the state of Washington signed with Penn State over the Huskies. Three days later, the No. 1 player in Pennsylvania’s 2023 class, OL Jven Williams from Wyomissing High School in Reading, announced his commitment. Then, this past Monday, Penn State landed Cornell transfer and FCS All-American Hunter Nourzad.

Trautwein deserves credit for all three additions, and it’s not as if his recruiting work started last week. It began before the 2021 season when five-star Alex Birchmeier committed to Penn State in July. Three-star Joshua Miller committed five days before Christmas, and fellow three-star Anthony Donkah committed Jan. 28, eight days before Williams made it four offensive line commits for next year’s class.

There’s a lot to like about Trautwein as a recruiter. Not many offensive line coaches have started on two national championship teams, as Trautwein did with the University of Florida, and the fact that Trautwein, 35, is barely old enough to run for president probably doesn’t hurt him in relating to college athletes.

Naturally, Penn State’s skeptics will dismiss Trautwein and Franklin’s recruiting until they “see results on the field,” and part of that is fair. But it’s not fair to pretend Trautwein doesn’t know how to develop offensive linemen.

In Trautwein’s last season at Boston College, before he took the Penn State job, five BC linemen were named All-ACC, which helped running back AJ Dillon earn first-team all-conference honors (something that could be in Nick Singleton’s future.)

It’s true that, so far, this success hasn’t translated to Penn State, but what if not all of that is Trautwein’s fault?

Of Penn State’s five regular offensive linemen in 2021, four of them were there before Trautwein got to Happy Valley. Eighty percent of Penn State’s starters were playing for their second offensive line coach and third offensive coordinator in three years, so adjusting needed to be done. The encouraging late-season performances of Olu Fashanu and Landon Tengwell– who have been coached by Trautwein and only Trautwein on the o-line– might be just enough indicator that Penn State might soon be done getting pushed around upfront.

Penn State football has a lot to prove in 2022, and yes, there need to be on-field improvements before Trautwein, Franklin or anybody can be crowned king of the world. But although Trautwein is not yet a hero of Penn State football, there’s an increasing feeling that he might not be a villain for much longer.

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