Consider just a few outside factors, and Phil Trautwein’s presence on Penn State’s coaching staff can be looked at as somewhat of a gamble.
For starters, his predecessor stood as a beloved figure among those he coached. Matt Limegrover arrived in Happy Valley and pieced together an offensive line that helped the Nittany Lions win the Big Ten Championship in 2016. He helped recruit a highly regarded stable of prospects. He helped mold them into a group that put together a dominant effort, especially in the running game, in the Cotton Bowl win over Memphis on Dec. 28. There were reasons to expect the relationship between Limegrover and Penn State would continue, even as his contract neared expiration at the end of the season.
As much as Penn State excelled in the running game, significant improvement protecting passers never materialized. In January, Penn State announced Limegrover would not return and head coach James Franklin subsequently hired Trautwein — one of the nation’s most highly-regarded up-and-coming line coaches who won two national championships at Florida and spent parts of four seasons in the NFL — to replace him.
Reality is, the transition from one coach to another is often one that takes time to fully complete, and Trautwein’s introduction to Penn State linemen has not had that blessing. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down campus and spring practice, but those Nittany Lions who cut their teeth under Limegrover insist the early reviews on Trautwein’s work have been positive.
“I love coach Traut,” Penn State senior center Michal Menet said. “He’s a great guy to be around, kind of demands everybody to be better every day, which is something that I’ve always loved from a coach. He’s younger, he kind of gets it, he understands what we’re going through because he’s not very far removed from playing himself. That valuable experience that he gained playing in the NFL, he’ll bring that to us along with some of the great coaches he’s had.”
The 34-year-old Trautwein has sold his veterans already on a new way of looking at technique.
In the past, he said, Penn State players had maybe gotten by on raw ability and strength, letting some of the finer points of blocking lapse. Senior offensive tackle Will Fries said part of the reason Trautwein was able to endear himself so quickly to his new players is his ability to explain not just what he’s teaching, but why he wants them to understand it.
“I think the thing that kind of separates him from other coaches is not only how you’re doing the technique, but why you’re doing it, how it affects other things,” Fries said. “I think that just builds a greater understanding of how you should play the game and how you become a more complete football player in the end.”
For instance, Trautwein wants offensive linemen to play, as he calls it, “in their legs” more often. That, he says, is where strength comes from, and he has a relatable way to describe it. He asks players, “Do you bench press more weight, or do you squat more.” Fries said that’s an easy way for players to understand the importance of improving technique in their base.
“He harps on that,” Fries said. “Just to me, that means feeling that kind of burning in your legs. That’s where your power comes from. That’s where you get all your drive from. You train all season for it, and now you can start moving guys off the ball with all that power. That’s kind of just what it means to me is just running off the ball, being strong, playing strong, using that big V8 engine in your legs to move guys off the ball and not kind of tiptoe or take too many little choppy steps where you’re not getting enough power.”
The foundation of Penn State’s offensive line is promising, talented and experienced. It has also never gotten over the top and put together an all-around dominant season.
Menet said Trautwein is the type of coach who can get him there, because he has the means of underscoring how exactly it can be done.
“I think every O-line coach you have is going to have their own variations of technique and footwork and all that kind of stuff,” Menet said. “Probably the biggest difference is the run game technique and fundamentals. I like it more because I just feel like it’s more physical and more explosive, which I think is going to be a huge plus for us this year, especially with the talent that we have in the backfield.”