November 09, 2016

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) The ascent of a few offensive linemen is coming at a good time for Penn State.

The No. 12 Nittany Lions (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten, CFP), who lost right tackle Andrew Nelson to a season-ending knee injury four weeks ago, will likely be without fellow starter Brendan Mahon when they play Indiana on Saturday. Penn State coach James Franklin did not rule out a return later this season for Mahon who appeared to injure a foot on the first play against Iowa. He was carted from the sideline to the locker room and replaced by Chasz Wright who's expected to make his first start.

''We'll see how the week plays out. And then we're also working on some other variables,'' Franklin said. ''We kind of have a bunch of different plans but right now obviously we have the situation with how the game ended.''

That included inserting the flexible Wright alongside a much-improved unit consisting of veteran center Brian Gaia, two freshmen and a reclamation project tabbed to play the group's most critical spot.

Former junior college transfer Paris Palmer will make his fourth-straight start protecting quarterback Trace McSorley's blindside and is suddenly the team's most experienced tackle available. Unlike guards Ryan Bates and Connor McGovern, who earned starting jobs quickly and have held on to them, Palmer had to come off the bench this year after his debut season full of struggles.

Having injured his knee his senior year of high school, Palmer spent what would've been his freshman year in college working in a factory dropping cashews, peanuts and dates into tubes to make trail mix. He then enrolled at Lackawanna College to play a season before arriving at Penn State with junior eligibility.

He came with little experience as a pass blocker having played in a Wing T offense in high school and no real strength training background. Due to his lack of FBS experience, opposing pressures were usually aimed at Palmer and Penn State's ramshackle offensive line allowed 39 sacks a year after it gave up 44.

''I couldn't get down about it,'' Palmer said of losing his starting spot in the offseason. ''I couldn't lose confidence because at any moment in the game of football you can be brought into the game at any time.''

Now, those sack numbers are down, rushing totals are up and Penn State's offense is among the most explosive in the country thanks to consistency up front.

Palmer's turnaround has helped and so has the steadying influence of team captain Gaia. Bates has settled in nicely as a starter in his second year and McGovern was recently named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week for a dominating effort against Iowa that saw Penn State rush for 359 yards. Wright, while he'll make his first start, has also helped out at guard this season.

Quarterback Trace McSorley even attributes the team's impressive plus-6 turnover margin to his front five. He's getting hit less - he was getting drilled and fumbling in the first few weeks - and has plenty of time to find receivers down the field. Like the 6-foot-7, 300-pound Palmer, Wright is among the team's most physically imposing players at 6-foot-7, 343 pounds.

They're playing like it, too.

''They're playing really physical football up front,'' tight end Mike Gesicki said.

Meanwhile, star running back Saquon Barkley leads the Big Ten with 1,055 rushing yards and has found success running right and left.

''You see them working together on the sideline, talking through things that they're seeing, different kinds of twists and stunts and alignments that they're seeing on defense,'' McSorley said. ''(It's good) to know that we have guys in our depth that can come in and not miss a beat with what we've got going on.''

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