August 14, 2015

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Christian Hackenberg stood off to the side with his helmet off, eyes wide as Penn State's offensive line opened holes for running backs at practice.

Penn State's junior quarterback didn't get to see much of this last season as his team's front - cobbled together with two defensive line converts and a handful of first-year players with few backup options available - was often besieged.

The situation is already more hopeful this training camp.

''The offense is having a lot more success right now,'' Penn State coach James Franklin said. ''We don't have everything in. They're not seeing blitzes every down from our defense and things like that, but our offense is having more success than we've had.''

Penn State started five different combinations of linemen in 2014 and there were plenty of times where the team only had six or seven linemen ready to play.

Now, Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan can evaluate a deeper, more experienced talent pool.

Penn State returns six offensive linemen who started games last season in addition to two more with limited playing time now in their third years in the program. The team also added fifth-year senior Kevin Reihner and junior college transfer Paris Palmer.

Behind them, five redshirt freshmen are eager - and closer - to getting on the field, Franklin said.

''They're not even in the picture as far as playing at that point,'' Donovan said. ''They might ultimately progress into playing a lot, but even if they can just spell or do something along those lines, that's a big help.''

Especially considering players are practicing in full pads. That's helped players like junior center Wendy Laurent show their physicality.

Pressed into action due to injuries last season, Laurent is already pushing returning starters Angelo Mangiro, Brendan Mahon and Brian Gaia for a starting spot on the inside. Franklin said he's been pleased with Laurent's progress and is especially intrigued by his flexibility. Like Mangiro, Franklin is confident Laurent can play either guard spot in addition to center.

Returning starter Andrew Nelson lined up at both left and right tackle last season but primarily played on the right. With Donovan Smith's departure to the NFL, the Nittany Lions still need to find a left tackle to protect Hackenberg's blind side. The 6-foot-7, 297-pound Palmer, who enrolled early in January, played heavy snap counts at left tackle during spring practice but hasn't solidified himself yet.

''He's bigger, he's stronger, he's more confident,'' Franklin said. ''But he's probably playing in a lot of ways like some of the offensive linemen played last year. Tentative, not as confident, not as aggressive as we want to be.''

Hackenberg needs his teammates to improve. Sacked 44 times last season, Hackenberg knows he'll pay the price if last year's struggles continue. But he could also benefit significantly with just a bit more time to throw.

''This camp, you're going to see a group that's extremely focused, playing with a chip on their shoulder,'' Hackenberg said. ''I think everything that they are going to do this year, they've earned it. I'm extremely excited about the opportunity that they have.''

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