Freshmen make impact on Penn State's offensive line
- Matt Limegrover is Penn State's new offensive line coach.
- True freshman Connor McGovern and Michal Menet could see lots of playing time in 2016.
- The Nittany Lions' offensive line has been a problem spot in recent years.
STATE COLLEGE — In the ideal world, Penn State coach James Franklin said, offensive linemen redshirt as freshmen.
For two recruiting classes, Franklin did just that with seven linemen.
This year could be different, however, as the Lions' group of four freshmen have made an immediate impression on the line. Matt Limegrover, Penn State's new line coach, called them "probably one of the best recruiting classes" in the country among linemen, and two are getting regular rotations in the two-deep.
As the Lions seeks to replenish a line that struggled for two seasons, they will do so with a mix of youth and experience.
"If one of those guys happens to give us the best chance to be successful," Franklin said, "we'll play him."
Though it returns five linemen with starting experience, Penn State appears ready to inject younger players into its offensive front. Franklin and Limegrover have pointed to redshirt freshman Ryan Bates as a starting candidate at guard, while true freshmen Connor McGovern and Michal Menet have practiced with the first and second teams during training camp.
The tackles are experienced, with former left tackle Andrew Nelson returning to the right side and guard/tackle Brendan Mahon taking over the left. In the middle is fifth-year senior center Brian Gaia, the team's most experienced offensive player (with 25 starts) who sees his line turning a corner.
"I think we're right there," Gaia said. "We put in a lot of work all summer to make sure that we aren't the thing holding the team back."
A big project for Limegrover: Limegrover, the former offensive coordinator at Minnesota, arrived to a project at Penn State. He was amazed at what Franklin and his staff began with two years ago — "To try to run at the highest level with nine scholarship offensive linemen is downright scary," Limegrover said — and began helping to replenish the offense immediately upon being hired.
After a midnight meeting with his new linemen, Limegrover was in Florida 24 hours later recruiting with receivers coach Josh Gattis. Gaia said that Limegrover took possession of the line immediately.
"He sold us on the fact that, as a unit, we're his little baby, and he wants to craft us into what we can be," Gaia said.
Franklin has said that Penn State's no-huddle, up-tempo offense, operated by coordinator Joe Moorhead, takes pressure off its linemen and allows them to block more in space. It also opens opportunity for young linemen who are learning the offense at the same pace as the veterans.
"It's a lot simpler," Gaia said. "We dictate to the defense now."
'Outstanding' recruits: Limegrover said that McGovern, a Larksville native who enrolled early, and Menet, who is from Birdsboro, began training camp intent on playing this season. They have been part of the two-deep most of camp, getting looks at multiple positions.
Those two, along with fellow freshmen Will Fries and Alex Gellerstedt, compose what Limegrover called an "outstanding" group of recruits. Through camp, the coach has tested how they handle duress under various defensive looks (three-man fronts, blitzes, seven-man coverages, etc.).
"The single biggest challenge for guys like that is just the mental part," Limegrover said. "… I want to put them in the worst possible scenarios and see how they'll respond. Sometimes it's been good, sometimes there's work that needs to be done. But they are so attentive to everything, detail-wise. Their futures are really bright."
Tinkering at tackle: Penn State has spent camp tinkering with the tackle position as it looks to lock two starters. Those appear to be Mahon at left tackle and Nelson on the right.
Limegrover called Mahon one of the team's top five linemen, making him a likely starter. With what the coach called a "collection of left tackles to draw from," Nelson has returned to the right side he played last season. Nelson was at left tackle for spring drills and can play both positions.
At guard, fifth-year senior Derek Dowrey has played in 33 games, with six starts, and will help newcomers like Bates, Menet and McGovern. Bates, who redshirted last year, has displayed a "starter's mentality," Limegrover said. He's also part of the four-lineman 2015 class that will continue to push.
Paris Palmer, the junior-college transfer who started 11 games last season, has been in a tackle rotation with 2015 classmate Sterling Jenkins and redshirt sophomore Noah Beh. Redshirt freshman Stephen Gonzalez, who was close to playing last season, added nearly nine pounds of muscle and is listed at 6-4, 334.
"The thing you don't want to do is put out a de-facto starting group," Limegrover said. "The biggest thing we have going on right now is tremendous competition. There are some guys who I thought, early in camp, might be that guy, and there are some other guys who have taken a big step forward. You want that competition as long as possible."