Last season, Penn’s offensive line consisted of one returning star and four question marks.
This year, the line returns four starters, all but eliminating the lack of game-time experience problem. But as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Jon McLaughlin was quick to point out, nothing is final.
“I’m really trying to avoid taking anything for granted,” he said. “I’m treating them all as though they’re competing for their job, which they’ve all responded to really well. I don’t want to leave anything up to chance.”
Last year’s 5-5 (4-3 Ivy) finish still stings, but McLaughlin said his strategy is to learn from his mistakes and come back tougher.
One of those mistakes was recognized and resolved before the players even reported for camp: “refocusing the motivation.”
“We were in the middle of an 18-game win streak in the league, and maybe it was complacency, maybe we were just used to things falling into place for us, and then they stopped falling into place,” McLaughlin said. “We lost a little confidence, a little focus, and we let down a little bit. We started looking for answers, and that became a distraction.”
McLaughlin said he encouraged each player over the offseason to look in the mirror and think hard about how he could do his job better. McLaughlin wanted each player and coach to mentally commit to improving in every way he could.
On the field, both McLaughlin and his players expressed a renewed confidence in their abilities, both as individual players and as a line.
One of the most important aspects of a successful line is coordination, and for the four returning starters, that can only come from playing together.
Without 2012 grad and former captain Greg Van Roten at left tackle, however, some changes had to be made to the existing line. 2011 starter Jake Schwertner was moved from left guard to left tackle and Steve Szostak took over at guard to fill the remaining starting spot. Chris Bush remained at center while Joe Bonadies and Mike Pinciotti resumed their roles at right tackle and right guard, respectively.
“It wasn’t that hard of a transition,” Schwertner said. “I played tackle freshman year and all through high school, and it was good to let Steve hop in because he has experience at guard.”
Bush agreed that the transition was not a difficult adjustment for the returning starters.
“We moved some guys around, but the offensive line is the offensive line,” he said.
The Lafayette defense, however, may prove to be a challenge. The Leopards are returning four defensive line starters who have seen action in at least 10 games. They all got a look at the Penn offense in the Quakers’ season opener last year, a disheartening 37-12 loss.
McLaughlin believes, however, that the Red and Blue are much more prepared for their season opener then they were last year, due in large part to the team’s “all-around improved work ethic.”
“I think just in terms of assignment and technique, we’re way ahead of where we were last year,” he said.
“We’re communicating better and we’re accounting for guys better. I’m always going to challenge them to finish hard and be aggressive, but I think their comfort level with their assignments is really good right now.”
Bush agreed that while the line is more comfortable, there will always be opportunities to improve, and perhaps more importantly, opportunities for redemption.
“We’re just taking it one day at a time, one practice at a time, one game at a time,” Bush said. “We’re focused on coming out strong and beating Lafayette, and that’s it right now.”
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