SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When Penn State coach James Franklin ran into Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea, he offered one piece of advice:
As in, now. Before Saturday, kid.
“Yeah, I saw him the other night and had a conversation with him about, you know, [how] probably it makes sense for him just to declare to the NFL now,” Franklin said Friday morning during a joint coaches’ news conference at the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn. “And he’s a tremendous player, tremendous player. You talk about stuff you can’t coach: 6-foot-5, 340 pounds.”
“That’s all coaching,” Washington’s Chris Petersen quipped as the room broke up.
“Yeah, yeah,” Franklin replied with a grin. “[At] 6-5, 340 pounds, you can’t move him. You’re trying to get double-teams and be able to get [a] push up to the second level, like everybody is.”
And, more often than not, failing. The Huskies defensive front-line trio of Vea, Greg Gaines and Jaylen Johnson averages 320 pounds. Show of hands: Who wants to spend 3 1/2 hours trying to push three upright pianos uphill?
“I want to see that interior line — Steven Gonzalez, in particular — against those defensive tackles,” Pro Football Focus college analyst Josh Liskiewitz said of the Lions’ starting left guard. “Steven Gonzalez is an underrated guy; he was All-Big Ten for us. I don’t think he gets enough credit.”
The 2017 PFF All-B1G First Team Offense pic.twitter.com/dSIJP2DvxV
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) December 5, 2017
Penn State LG Steven Gonzalez is currently @PFF_College’s top graded guard in pass pro (88.3 overall – 3rd)
Gets virtually zero attention
— Ryan Smith (@PFF_Smith) October 21, 2017
Gonzalez has given up just 3 hurries on 244 pass blocking snaps.
Only OL not to give up a sack.
— Ryan Smith (@PFF_Smith) October 21, 2017
“That’s very flattering,” said Gonzalez, who was one of four Lions named to PFF’s All-Big Ten first-team offense with an 84.6 season grade — and the only representative from Penn State’s offensive line.
“I definitely appreciate the looks, but we’ve got a big challenge coming up with Vea, obviously, and No. 99 [Gaines], the other defensive tackle that they have. I think that’s obviously flattering, very flattering.”
A toy like Saquon Barkley is wasted if he doesn’t have room to work. It’s hard for Trace McSorley to find DaeSean Hamilton and Juwan Johnson and Mike Gesicki if he’s too busy lying on his back. For the engine to turn over on Saturday, the Penn State offensive line needs to be more like the one that handed Michigan its lunch and less of the discombobulated mess that struggled to cross the finish line at Ohio State.
“I think this year, you always have to prove yourself,” Gonazlez said. “You’ve got to go out, every week, to just prove yourself and to be the best offensive line that you can be. And obviously we’ve had some tough stretches against Ohio State and, obviously, against Michigan State. But I felt like we picked it up toward the end of the year and we got back to what we did against Michigan. I think it’s just really [about] consistency more than anything else.”
“In general, I think that offensive line, [there was a point] to some extent, where everyone wanted to give [former Lions quarterback Christian] Hackenberg a pass because the offensive line was terrible, which they were,” Liskiewitz said. “But I think now they’ve shown that yes, they’ve had some struggles, but I think in general that line has played fairly well. I would call Gonzalez the best guy on that line. [Ryan] Bates has been solid, but his run blocking has been suspect.
“But, yeah, in terms of people to stop, obviously [that line] is a huge key.”
And obviously, Vea is a mountain to move:
The 2017 PFF All-Pac 12 First Team Defense pic.twitter.com/FKB3kn6Oji
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) December 6, 2017
Washington DI Vita Vea holds the 2nd highest average of pressures on bullrushes.
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) July 15, 2017
“Just a mammoth assignment,” Liskiewitz said. “They’re going to have some struggles there. It’s a chance for a guy like Steven Gonzalez to have a chance to stake his claim [to scouts].”
From a distance, the first-blush impression likens Washington’s defense to the Wolverines’ wrecking crew and Vea to massive Michigan tackle Maurice Hurst. So it’s not like the Nittany Lions haven’t been there before:
LG Steven Gonzalez with a pancake on #15 Chase Winovich https://t.co/hkKXc54rHr
— Ryan Smith (@PFF_Smith) October 22, 2017
“As one of the leaders on the offensive line, I know that — we know that — as we get the game started, it starts with us,” Lions guard Brendan Mahon said earlier this week. “And we’re willing to put that burden on our back and kind of take it wherever we need to be.”