On Tuesday, the Penn State football program announced that defensive tackle Kyle Baublitz and offensive tackle Garry Gilliam will not return in 2014. Both will graduate next month and will forgo their remaining eligibility.
With this unexpected news comes the realization that two major holes have opened up in the trenches for the Nittany Lions. Since both were projected starters, Bill O'Brien will have to find other options to fill those spots next year.
Let's take a look at who could fill these voids and how the news might alter Penn State's recruiting strategy before the dead period.
Replacing Kyle Baublitz
With DaQuan Jones graduating after the season from an already thin defensive tackle corps, Baublitz's decision not to return is a huge blow for Penn State.
With not much to work with from a numbers standpoint, one of the options for defensive line coach Larry Johnson is to have defensive end Anthony Zettel pack on some extra weight and move inside.
Recruited out of high school as a defensive end, Zettel practiced at defensive tackle during his redshirt freshman season in 2011. When O'Brien took over, he was moved back outside.
Even though he's been productive this year at end—he has four tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception—Zettel actually prefers to play tackle. As Dan Norton of Philly.com details, Zettel believes his future is brighter as a defensive tackle:
If Anthony Zettel had a say in his own position, he’d prefer to play defensive tackle, not defensive end. He thinks his best chance at a future is in the middle of the line.
Zettel’s not complaining about lining up at end, but he said his mindset and body type — if he were to gain a few pounds — benefit him at tackle.
“I enjoy moving inside,” Zettel said. “I think the future for me is inside maybe. I can play with lower pads and I don’t have to think as much. I enjoy getting banged around like that, it doesn't affect me as much.”
With both Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan likely back next year, Penn State can afford to switch Zettel's position. The Nittany Lions haven't had much production outside of Jones, Baublitz and Austin Johnson, so they need some experience to fill the vacancy. Tyrone Smith, Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey have all played at times this year, but haven't made vast contributions on the stat sheet.
Given how he's proved himself over the course of the season, Zettel should be the top candidate on the roster to replace Baublitz.
From a recruiting standpoint, Penn State will have to push even harder to reel in heralded recruit Thomas Holley. The Nittany Lions are in the running for the Brooklyn native, but they face stiff competition from the likes of Ohio State, Notre Dame and Florida. They already have a commitment from Antoine White, but at only 250 pounds, he's not physically ready to handle the brunt of the Big Ten just yet.
With Baublitz no longer in the picture, tight ends coach John Strollo—who is recruiting Holley—could use this to his advantage. Given depth issues, he could try selling Holley on his chance to make an immediate impact once he gets to State College.
Replacing Garry Gilliam
Gilliam's impending departure is a bit shocking. In February, he was granted a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA after suffering a devastating knee injury that kept him out nearly two years. Nevertheless, a void a right tackle will now need to be filled next season.
He has split time with Adam Gress this year at the spot, but Gress will be graduating as well. And so will Eric Shrive, the former 5-star recruit, per Scout.com, who never hit his stride.
This opens up the door for Andrew Nelson, a member of Penn State's 2013 recruiting class, who redshirted this season. Nelson was a 3-star recruit according to Scout.com, and he put on nearly 40 pounds after his senior season at Hershey High School before coming to Penn State
Nelson was listed as the third-string left tackle on the depth chart at the beginning of the season. With Donovan Smith firmly cemented in at the left tackle spot, look for Nelson to make the switch to the right side in 2014.
At 6'5" and 297 pounds, Nelson has the frame for the college game that most recent high school offensive lineman don't have. And he has the talent too. In an excerpt from an article by Greg Pickel of PennLive.com, O'Brien seems to paint a certain picture about Nelson's situation. It seems that the decision to redshirt Nelson was based off of the Nittany Lions' 2013 depth and not that he wasn't ready to play:
That's what Nelson, and a few others, have been doing this fall, despite being ready to enter at a moments notice.
"If you look at the offensive line, do we need Andrew Nelson to play for us this year? No, because we have decent players there that we really believe in and hopefully we can keep him where he can redshirt and have four years to play as opposed to Brandon Bell," O'Brien explained, referring to the linebacker.
Unless Anthony Alosi plays extremely well in camp, the Andrew Nelson era will likely start a year earlier than expected.
So far, Penn State already has an offensive tackle commitment in its 2014 class—from Noah Beh, a 3-star according to Scout.com. He'll certainly add depth at the position, but he probably won't challenge Nelson right away.
A name to keep an eye on is Kareem Are—he's an enormous junior college prospect, drawing interest from top programs like Florida State and South Carolina.
The 6'6", 320-pound Are has the body to be immediately inserted into the Nittany Lions lineup. According to his Scout.com page, he's scheduled to visit Penn State on Nov. 22.
Just last week, I wrote a November update for Penn State's recruiting thus far. At the time, Scout.com had Are listed as a 2-star recruit. Now—only nine days later—he's ranked as a 3-star. He's certainly heating up as a prospect, so let's see if the Penn State coaching staff can play the depth card to coax Are into becoming a Nittany Lion.