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Penn State right tackle Andrew Nelson: 'We're a different offensive line'

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Andrew Nelson still ducks into the film room every week, running clip after clip of last season. It can be a painful exercise.

As Penn State's starting right tackle, Nelson was part of a struggling line that allowed more stops in the backfield than all but seven of 125 FBS teams. He was part of an offense that ranked No. 110 nationally in scoring. He was part of a line that surrendered 44 sacks.

But, still, he watches last season's film -- the ill-fated teammate-on-teammate block, the six-sack Michigan contest, the six-point offensive output against Northwestern. And, in those first few games, he especially doesn't like what he sees: Why did I do this here? Why did I make this call?

He watches so he doesn't repeat those same mistakes. But he also wants to make something clear: What he sees on that film is no longer what he sees in spring practice.

“At times life's not going to be all about sunshine and rainbows,” Nelson said. “I think last year, obviously, there were definitely a lot of points we struggled. But getting all those reps, getting all that experience together as a unit, has really helped us grow.

“I definitely think we're taking the attitude right now that we're tired of people scrutinizing the offensive line. We're going to come out this year and show people that we're a different offensive line.”

Experience wasn't on the Nittany Lions' side last season. It's still not -- but not quite like 2014. Nelson and Brendan Mahon were coming off redshirt seasons, center Angelo Mangiro was working on his first year as a full-time starter, and two other guards were transitioning from defensive tackle. Last year, only one healthy starter returned to the roster.

This season? Only one starter, left tackle Donovan Smith, departed.

A different dynamic has pervaded the air at Holuba Hall now. This group is more confident, more aware of its short-comings -- and more intent on fixing them. Head coach James Franklin has tried to bring the line along slower this offeason, keeping newcomers where they're most comfortable, while instructing the defense to keep blitzes at a minimum.

During portions of open practice, assistant coach Herb Hand calmly pointed and re-explained pass-blocking techniques. If a player didn't meet Hand's standards, the coach called upon him -- without raising his voice -- like a teacher calling on a student in a classroom. The player repeated the exercise until Hand was satisfied. (Junior college transfer Paris Palmer and early enrollee Sterling Jenkins repeated quite a few exercises during one open practice.)

And, so far at least, the defense -- which admittedly felt burdened last season -- has been happy with the progress.

“From a physical standpoint, they're all a lot different,” defensive tackle Anthony Zettel said. “A lot of them added about 10 pounds of muscle. They're strong from the point of attack and, just from knowing the offense and playing with a higher IQ, they've improved a lot. I'm excited about where they're headed.”

It's difficult to gauge the line's mental progress this early but, physically, it's easy to spot how much more imposing they are. Zettel was just about dead-on with his estimation. This spring, Penn State's four returners are an average of a little more than 310 pounds. At the start of last season, those same returners weighed an average of 299 pounds.

The big question mark, of course, is at that fifth spot. Palmer and redshirt freshman Chance Sorrell are battling for the opening at left tackle, and neither has seen any game time in the FBS. Both players also weigh in the mid-280s.

Ideally, Franklin said, offensive linemen would start at Penn State as redshirt sophomores after taking two seasons to become fully acclimated. That's still not a luxury afforded to the Lions, or at left tackle. But PSU is still in better shape this spring than a year ago -- and players here remain optimistic.

“Definitely 100 percent more confident,” Nelson said. “One of the biggest things for offensive line play is just getting those on-field reps, so getting an entire season of on-field reps, playing every single snap in the games for the offense was huge -- and not only for me, but for a lot of guys. ... That experience has helped all of us grow tremendously.”