Penn State football’s two highest-rated Class of 2023 signees are offensive linemen.
Alex Birchmeier, a high-end four-star recruit, was the first player to commit to Penn State’s ’23 Class, doing so in July 2021.
J’ven Williams, another high-end four-star recruit, followed more than six months later.
Penn State’s third OL signee, Anthony Donkoh, is also a four-star recruit, and the 6-foot-5, 321-pounder has plenty of size that could serve him well early on.
Williams (6-foot-5, 313 pounds) is a local guy from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, near Reading. Birchmeier (6-foot-5, 292 pounds) is from Ashburn, Virginia, and recently, Penn State has recruited as well in Virginia as any state, with the exception of Pennsylvania.
Birchmeier and Williams were five-star recruits at one point, according to 247Sports’ composite ratings, and were pretty close by the time the final list came out for the 2023 recruiting cycle. They arrived on campus early with Donkoh, who is from Aldie, Virginia, less than a half hour from Ashburn.
All three are learning from veteran linemen such as Landon Tengwall, who said the three did an “absolutely great job” over the winter and spring months.
“They’ve come in just ready to learn,” Tengwall told reporters via Zoom last week, “always asking questions, trying to get into the film room more with the older guys. So, I mean, those three young guys, I’ve been really impressed by them. A group of big, athletic guys. All of them pretty highly-rated guys. But they’ve come in with their head down and just worked.”
It will take a lot of work for any of the three freshmen to make an impact in year one. Penn State has a good offensive line, seven words people don’t typically write confidently. It’s also arguably more challenging for young offensive linemen to adjust than for players at any other position.
“Obviously, offensive line is really hard to come in early and make an immediate impact,” quarterback Drew Allar told reporters after last Saturday’s Blue-White game, “just because coming from high school, you’re always the biggest. And you get here; you’re going against guys like Chop Robinson, Adisa Isaac, Dani (Dennis-Sutton). Just guys that you don’t see in high school. So, it’s probably the biggest jump for any position, I would say, is offensive line, coming in midyear. But I think they handled things really well.”
Like Williams, Allar was Penn State’s top-rated signee, having that honor for the 2022 Class. An advantage that Williams had over Allar, as far as pressure goes, is that a top quarterback signee is generally under a more giant microscope than a decorated offensive lineman.
A better pre-Penn State comparison for Williams and Birchmeier is Tengwall himself. Tengwall, like those two, was a high-end four-star in his day, and he was Penn State’s top-rated signee in the Class of 2021.
He can attest to Allar’s words.
“Obviously, spring ball, on the o and d-line coming in, it’s not too easy,” Tengwall said with a smile. “You’re going from being a high schooler to going against a top 10 program in the nation. So it’s not easy.”
It’s not easy, but it can be done.
Last season, Penn State’s best offensive lineman, Olu Fashanu, went down with an injury that proved to be season-ending, and somebody needed to step up at left tackle.
Enter true freshman Drew Shelton.
Like Williams, Shelton is a big hoss from Pennsylvania. The Downingtown native stepped in for Williams and more than held his own. On classmate Nick Singleton’s 87-yard run in Penn State’s Rose Bowl win over Utah, Shelton made a key block that helped make the run happen.
Ideally, Fashanu, who could be a top-five pick in next year’s draft, will stay healthy all season, and the rest of Penn State’s starters also will.
But if somebody goes down, Williams might just have the tools to hold down the fort.
“J’ven is someone who’s extremely athletic,” Tengwall said. “He’s excited to learn. He’s eager. He’s had a great spring.
“His upside is insane. I mean, he’s one of the most athletic guys on the line I’ve seen in a while. So I’m really excited for him.”
Williams isn’t the only varsity athlete among Penn State’s freshmen linemen.
“They’re all athletic,” veteran lineman Sal Wormley said after a Tuesday practice this spring, “but they’ve got things to work on. They’ve all been really impressive. Those are guys who, in a year or two years, depending on how they work, they can play here.”
Penn State has an experienced line, with guys like Tengwall (third year), Caedan Wallace (fifth year) and Hunter Nourzad (sixth year) leading the way from a leadership standpoint.
Wormley said the vets are doing all they can to help the freshmen, along with head coach James Franklin and offensive line coach Phil Trautwein.
“We have chats with Franklin and Traut about having to be a leader and all that,” Wormley said. “But as a player, we don’t want them to do bad. We like the young guys.”
Allar feels the leaders are doing their jobs.
“I think what really benefitted them was the older guys in that room,” Allar said. “Olu, Dawk (Nick Dawkins), Caeden, Sal, Hunter, Landon. I think they did a really good job with all of them, just teaching them the whole offensive line calls, everything, all their techniques. I think we have really good veteran leadership in that offensive line room.”
Overall, Wormley knows the young guys will make mistakes.
But he’s confident they’ll fulfill what they’re capable of in Happy Valley.
“We want them to get better,” Wormley said. “We can see their potential. Of course, they’re going to mess up. But a little coaching will get them on the right track.”