When Penn State released its official depth chart ahead of the 2017 season, it was with redshirt freshman Will Fries listed as the backup at left tackle. When he made his first career start a few weeks later it was at left guard and when he returned to the starting lineup this past weekend against Indiana it was at right tackle. If all that makes your head spin a little bit, imagine his.
For a first-year starter working three different positions, playing on either side of the center, that might make for a heavy mental load, but for Fries, a four-year honor student at Cranford (N.J.) High School, he’s shown the capacity to handle it. The work he put in beforehand has prepared him for now.
A four-star prospect at offensive guard in the Class of 2016, he has a couple years of experience playing OG at the high school level and worked there at times during preseason. When he was a redshirt one season ago he worked at both tackle positions, as well as in camp this year as well. He credits the work put in on the scout team and with the travel squad as helping him get ready for the variety of assignments asked of him so far this season.
How his redshirt season unfolded has readied him to be thrust into action now.
He started last year as a yellow light and then after the first month of the season it was determined that the coaches would preserve his eligibility. At least that was the thinking at the time. Then injuries, one after another at offensive tackle, started to mount, and the possibility of Fries being inserted into playing time became real again.
“I was a redshirt at the beginning (of 2016) but there was a chance that I might have to play after the first few games but then after Michigan I was pretty much in that redshirt mindset,” Fries said. “It was going good. I was getting bigger and stronger and getting better in practice going against (DEs) like Garrett Sickels, Evan Schwan and Torrence Brown and those guys and there came a point when I thought I might have to play. I obviously felt very prepared and Coach Limegrover and the older guys got me prepared to play. That didn’t end up working out like that.”
Not last year anyhow. But now he’s seeing the payoff.
Being bounced around from the practice squad to travel roster was difficult at times, but it hardened his resolve and helped him grow into a more versatile player when he was needed. That arguably more at the start of this season than last, as nagging, more minor injuries have shaken up a couple spots along the OL through the first five games.
Left guard or right tackle, he even works left tackle from time to time in practice still, Fries has been comfortable with his role.
“It’s not too big of an adjustment,” he said, adding how switching from the left to the right side is “just a matter of getting the form back down and just being more dominant with your right foot, right hand and things like that. It’s definitely an adjustment but it’s something you get used to pretty quickly (by) just getting work at practice and things like that.”
No matter how many reps he has gotten on the practice fields, however, there is no duplicating the speed and environment playing inside a college football stadium on Saturdays. He said each game that he’s played he’s grown incrementally more at ease.
In the first game there were nerves, he acknowledged to reporters on a conference call Tuesday morning, but then added how it then becomes “a matter of really trusting yourself and being more confident overall.”
Coming from an offense that ran the ball frequently in high school, Fries was most secure in his ability to run block when he entered college. Now he’s taken a more intense focus into his pass-set technique. The improvement he’s shown there is just one reason why he’s been one of the first backups to enter the OL unit when others go down, no matter the position.
“In my opinion I would think I’m a better run blocker,” Fries said. “That’s something that I’ve worked a lot on in high school. It has come more natural to me. There are a lot of technique adjustments with jumping to the college level with pass protection. That’s something that I keep working on and getting better and better on every day, just refining my technique to become the best player possible.”