The line was more or less a throwaway from James Franklin on Wednesday afternoon.
Talking to reporters after his team’s fifth spring practice session, the Nittany Lion head coach was asked about fluctuating rushing numbers from the 2016 season. From game to game last year, wild highs like 372 yards against Maryland, 359 against Iowa and 339 at Rutgers would follow with relative lows like 122 against Ohio State, 77 at Indiana and 77 at Michigan State, respectively.
Franklin, relaying some of the offseason studies that went into an evaluation of the team’s offense, made the argument that the Nittany Lions were effective in situational rushing opportunities. Short yardage, four-minute offense, third-and-1, fourth-and-1, third-and-2, fourth-and-2, he said, “were pretty good.”
Finishing the season with the second-most productive offense in the conference at 432.6 yards per game, the Nittany Lions actually were it's most efficient at 6.5 yards per play, topping both Ohio State and Michigan. At third in the conference in scoring, the Lions also finished the season with the most touchdowns at 63 for the year.
Still, despite hosting a rare talent and likely Heisman candidate in sophomore running back Saquon Barkley, the Nittany Lions finished seventh in the league in rushing yards per game. Checking in at 171.9 yards per outing, the Lions’ 4.5 yards per carry average was also tied for fifth in the conference.
In what might have been his most matter-of-fact pronouncement on the subject to date, Franklin described the basis of his confidence for future improvements on the ground in 2017.
"I think No. 1, I think it's going to start with our offensive line," he said. "I think we're just better up front."
Shrugging while expressing the sentiment, Franklin's words took on a physical manifestation while the reality of the team's dominant story line the past three seasons takes a backseat to more pressing needs this year. As opposed to the nine total bodies available for spring practice upon the staff's arrival at Penn State, the Nittany Lions have a robust group of young, physical talent carrying the weight of legitimate expectations this season.
Though returning veteran tackle Andrew Nelson was on the sidelines watching practice Wednesday, still nursing an injury that cut short his 2016 at six games, Penn State's depth on the offensive line reflects that new reality.
Expected to return for the 2017 season, Nelson and fellow lineman Brendan Mahon represent two of the top four Lions with the most career starts. Though just a redshirt sophomore, Ryan Bates started all 14 games in his debut last season. True sophomore Connor McGovern brings nine starts to the table, Chasz Wright has five. Steven Gonzalez picked up three starts in the final four games last season.
Gone are grizzled vets like Brian Gaia, Derek Dowrey, Wendy Laurent and Paris Palmer, but an influx of much-anticipated talent including Mike Menet, Will Fries, Alex Gellerstedt and Sterling Jenkins will be bolstered by newcomers including Mike Miranda, Robert Martin, Desmond Holmes and C.J. Thorpe from the Lions' Class of 2017.
Depth, experience and, maybe most critically, talent are all expected to be improved for the unit as a whole as it embarks on its second season under the tutelage of assistant Matt Limegrover. The shape of the week one depth and position placement of the unit's personnel remains to be seen, but Franklin expressed his confidence that some of the issues of the past were less likely in the days ahead.
"There were games where we just didn't match up well and we struggled. That was really kind of our story the first couple years, but we're past that," he said. "So I think that'll be the biggest difference."