It all starts and ends up front.
After an impressive 2015 season in which Penn football only allowed 12 sacks all year, the Quakers’ offensive line faces a new challenge. However, this obstacle is not a powerful defensive lineman or a blitzing cornerback — it is the prospect of three holes needing to be filled on the offensive line with relatively inexperienced players.
On the left side of the line, the experience is there. Seniors Nick Demes and Dan Poulos have both been starting since at least their sophomore year, and thus have earned the responsibility of protecting quarterback Alex Torgersen’s blind side.
However, as you move farther right on the line, there are some question marks of various magnitudes. At center, Nate Kirchmier will start in place of the graduated Jack York. Playing in two games last year, Kirchmier spent most of the 2015 season preparing for a starting role in 2016.
“Kirchmier was a really solid backup last year,” Penn offensive coordinator John Reagan said. “He has really earned that starting center role.”
Head coach Ray Priore echoed Reagan’s confidence in Kirchmier.
“You’re always going to have people graduating, that’s just college football,” Priore said. “Kirchmier has taken great steps this past offseason towards filling the center position.”
At right guard, senior Nick Whitton is also a logical incumbent. Whitton played in eight games last year, getting valuable experience that will help him move into a full-time starting job this season. Playing last season also helped him develop priceless chemistry with Demes and Poulos.
“We stress having good communication up front,” Demes said. “Usually it takes some time to jell but I think having some experience back will help out the new guys.”
Whitton will be looking to finish his Penn career strong after spending years learning the system and improving his technique behind starter Daniil Lysenko.
The largest question mark is at right tackle. The Quakers coaching staff has yet to decide on a starter, acknowledging that there are two or three legitimate contenders at the position.
“The two guys who have really stood out at the position are [juniors] Gerhard Williams and Austin Stapleton,” Reagan said. “It could turn out that there’s more than one guy playing right tackle in tandem.”
Reagan also pointed out the physical advantages to a possible joint-starting role for the pair of juniors.
“Having six or seven guys that can play up front is a great situation,” Reagan said. “If you can take 10 snaps off an offensive lineman every game, he’s essentially played one less game by the end of the season.”
One to look at for the future is freshman Greg Begnoche, who Reagan specifically named when questioned about the right tackle position.
“[Begnoche] is showing a lot of promise so far in camp,” Reagan admitted. “We’ll see if he’s ready physically and mentally to play at all this season.”
Whoever steps in at right tackle will not only have the challenge of finding their feet in a newfound starting role, but will also have to fill the shoes of All-Ivy tackle Tanner Thexton, arguably Penn’s best offensive lineman last year.
So, what can we expect from the offensive line early in the year? Although the team is confident in the ability of the new starters, they admit that there could be a small learning curve that results in some early-season wrinkles.
“The more reps we have together the better,” Poulos said. “It’s nice to have some out of conference games to work out the kinks.”
Offensive line coach Joe Johnson also noted the importance of getting the new group game time together.
“Playing offensive line is not five individual guys, it’s one strong unit,” Johnson said. “And that’s why it’s so important to get your five guys out there and let them mesh.”
One thing is for sure — the relationships that are being built up front are getting stronger by the day.
“We’re working better as a group every time we go out there,” Kirchmier said. “We spend hours together every day hanging out and getting reps.
“The O-Line is a brotherhood. If we’re gelling like this already, there’s no telling how good we can get.”
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