Between them, Penn State fifth-year senior offensive linemen Will Fries and Michal Menet have already made 58 career starts. Which may well beg the question of what more can they possibly learn heading into the 2020 season, whenever it may arrive?
But the veteran duo will be the first to admit that a new face in the program is bringing a new perspective to the offensive line room, one that both of them can appreciate as they think about their football careers after college. Back in January, James Franklin hired Phil Trautwein as the Nittany Lions’ new offensive line coach. While Trautwein may be relatively young in the profession, having landed his first full-time coaching job at Davidson in 2016, the rest of his resume is eye-catching for young linemen aspiring to advance to the NFL.
Trautwein played his college ball at Florida in the mid-2000s, starting at tackle as Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow were putting the program back on the map. Then he had a four-year NFL career, spending time with the St. Louis Rams, Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers.
In other words, the 34-year-old Trautwein can talk the talk now because he walked the walk not so long ago.
“I think it’s important, just because that’s what I aspire to be one day, being in his shoes, and he was able to accomplish it,” Fries said of Trautwein’s NFL credentials. “So he has all that wisdom, all those experiences about how to get there and guide me and Mike to that point. Ultimately that’s where we want to be, in his shoes.”
“From the first second I started talking to him, I could already tell that I was gonna like him,” Menet added. “And before I even talked to him, I was excited that he played in the NFL. He had that experience that he could bring to us, which … not a lot of coaches really bring that to the table. I think that’s a huge plus, because he’s played at the highest level and he knows what works and what doesn’t from experience. So I think that was probably one of the biggest things before I even talked to him I was looking forward to.”
But there was even more to like about Trautwein for the Penn State linemen. During his time as a graduate assistant at Boston College (2013-15) and later the O-line coach with the Eagles (2018-19), he was mentored by legendary New England Patriots assistant coach Dante Scarnecchia. At BC, he worked under head coach Steve Addazio, who was an O-line coach at Florida (when Trautwein was there), and previously at Indiana and Syracuse.
“He always talks about Coach Scarnecchia and kind of the techniques he teaches,” Fries said. “Having that ramrod position with his punch. I think the thing that kind of separates him from other coaches is not only how you’re doing it — the technique — but why you’re doing it, how it affects other things. I think that just builds a great understanding of how you should play the game and just helps you become a more complete football player in the end.”
“I love Coach Traut,” Menet added. “In the little bit of time I’ve kind of gotten to know him so far, I really like him. 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. And that valuable experience that he gained playing in the NFL, to be able to bring that to us, along with some of the great coaches he’s had, I think has been extremely valuable as well.”
Something else that has stood out to Menet is the amount of focus Trautwein puts on teaching the finer points of run blocking. Like most offensive linemen, Menet is comfortable pass blocking but really enjoys blowing open holes for running backs.
“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,” he said. “I’d say the biggest difference (with Trautwein) is probably the run game technique and fundamentals. I like it more just because I 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. So I think that’s probably the biggest thing so far that I’ve noticed is pretty different (from last season).”
From Fries’ perspective, it isn’t just what Trautwein is teaching the offensive linemen, but how he is going about doing it.
“Just getting to talk to him, the first couple times I met him and hearing just his confidence, the way he carries himself, it was easy to buy in,” Fries said. “He’s done it at the highest level. I think that’s helpful, as well. But just knowing the kind of person he is now, it was an easy buy-in. I’ve learned a ton of stuff from him as far as some techniques, becoming a higher IQ football player, learning defenses better — that’s an ever growing process of keep trying to learn that stuff.”
While watching film of Trautwein back in his not-so-distant playing days, it is kind of stunning to notice the 300-plus pounds he carried on his 6-foot-6 frame. Fries, who also goes 6-6, enjoys being able to look a coach straight in the eye. But weight-wise, well, Trautwein is significantly thinner than he once was.
“Yeah, it’s kind of funny seeing him how big he used to be — you know, his days in Florida and the NFL,” Fries said. “ But I think that his technique was incredible. I think that’s a part that’s overlooked — he was just such a technician. Watching his old film is awesome.”
Learning from it is even better.