Penn football fans who watched the Quakers clinch the Ivy title last season against Harvard probably still cherish one of the most indelible mental images of that game — Penn’s offensive line blowing Harvard’s vaunted defensive front off the line of scrimmage.
The Crimson’s No. 1-ranked defense among Ivies withered against Penn’s power running attack. The Quakers’ 227 yards rushing on 56 attempts carried the day in dominating fashion, in no small part due to two-time All-Ivy selection Joe Bonadies and 2012 All-Ivy second-teamer Mike Pinciotti flanking the right side of the line.
They’re gone now, and suddenly protecting lefty fifth-year senior quarterback Billy Ragone’s blind side now falls to … we’ll see.
“The one nice thing about our offensive line right now is a lot of competition,” offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Jon McLaughlin told The DP exclusively at Media Day. “I think the strength of our offensive line is our depth, I think that depth allows for a lot of competition and I think that depth is going to allow us to play a lot of guys come the season.
“You’re gonna see, maybe more so than in years past, seven, eight guys play each and every week.”
Penciled in to replace Pinciotti at right guard is senior Sean McGinn, who featured as a special teams player last season. Junior Matt Kiefer is positioned to take over what was Bonadies’ right tackle spot — for now.
“There’s never 100 percent that you’re gonna be in this spot,” Kiefer also told The DP exclusively at Media Day. “I’ve got a bunch of guys behind me that are good players. I’ve gotta keep my best game up or they’ll be in the starting spot instead of me.”
The prospect of Billy Ragone emerging from an ankle injury that took him nine months to recover from only to have a newcomer protect his blind side isn’t an encouraging one for Quakers fans. Still, McLaughlin believes that Ragone’s legs have his back.
“He helps his protection by being extremely mobile and having an unbelievable sense of pressure and escapability,” McLaughlin said. “So yeah, sure, we are conscientious of the blind side, but you have so many routes where the progression is that way so you’re looking that way. I would say Matt Kiefer’s strength is his athleticism and protection, so we feel pretty good about the guys we’re gonna line up over there and not have a problem with the backside protection.”
While the right side of the line is in flux, the other three O-line spots are set in stone. Seniors Jake Schwertner and Steve Szostak return at left tackle and left guard respectively after starting all 10 games last season.
And returning as starting center for the third time is senior and 2013 team co-captain Chris Bush, a second-team All-Ivy selection a year ago who has started 19 of the last 20 games anchoring the middle of Penn’s line.
“Chris Bush is a great guy,” Kiefer said. “I voted for him for captain so I feel pretty good about that. He was always one of the guys my sophomore, freshman year who would help me understand the offense and slow things down for me. So he’s always fit into the role of captain in my mind.”
With Bush still on board, Penn’s O-line feels the pressure to maintain its dominant level of play from the end of last season. McLaughlin’s running attack and Ragone’s long-term health depend on it.
“I feel a lot of pressure,” Kiefer said. “Obviously as the youngest guy on the line, I have a lot to prove. A lot of trust to earn.”