Spring practice begins Wednesday. James Franklin wants to start it off with a center who knows the position well.
The Penn State coach has just that in Connor McGovern.
Needing to replace a fifth-year senior and team captain in Brian Gaia, Franklin is turning first to the former Lake-Lehman standout, who starred at center for the Black Knights.
“That’s kind of been a big discussion,” Franklin said Tuesday. “We’ve changed it probably three or four times as a staff. And basically, what we’ve ended with, is that we want to get as many returning starters on the field as possible.
“So the best way to do that is by moving a guy like Connor McGovern in there to center. The way I think we’re looking at this right now, for the start of spring ball, is having McGovern at center, having (walk-on Zach) Simpson at center. They are both guys that have done it before in practice and we feel like we can go out and practice well right from day one with those guys.”
McGovern broke onto the scene as no true freshman had done on the offensive line at Penn State in decades, staring nine of the final 10 games at right guard.
But the Lions liked him as a center during the recruiting process, and the rising sophomore will have a chance to make his case for the job, beginning this week.
Whether McGovern ends up starting at center or guard in the fall could depend on how the rest of the line develops and the health of the unit. With seniors Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson coming off of season-ending injuries, a guy such as Ryan Bates — whom Franklin also mentioned as someone who could play center — figures to stay at tackle for at least the spring.
For now, the Nittany Lions will look for McGovern to help set the tone up front.
“We didn’t want to have some guys at center the first couple days of practice that haven’t really done it in practice before, and now our practice has become sloppy and messy,” Franklin said. “So that’s how we’re going to start spring ball, but I’m not sure it’ll necessarily finish that way. We’ll just kind of see.”
Departures: Elsewhere on the offensive line, Franklin announced three players are no longer on the roster — Scranton Prep grad Noah Beh, Brendan Brosnan and walk-on Adam De Boef.
Beh will be leaving the program to keep playing — Lions247 reported that he plans to transfer to Football Championship Subdivision Delaware, where he’d be eligible to play this fall — while Brosnan and DeBoef have retired from football, according to Franklin.
“All those guys that are leaving us left under good circumstances,” Franklin said. “They really have. There’s different reasons for all of them. But they have all left and we are very, very appreciative of what they did with their time while they were here.”
The departures of two scholarship linemen from the 2014 recruiting class don’t come as a surprise.
A year ago at this time, Beh was splitting first-team reps at tackle during spring ball. But he never got on the field in the fall after being suspended by the team for the length of the season.
Asked about Beh’s status in January, Franklin said, “We’ll see how these things play out. I think every guy’s situation is different. And how they handle those situations … they learn from it, they grow, they move forward, they move on and they’re better for it.”
Still enrolled at Penn State for the spring semester, Beh has remained around the team and was visible while working out during the winter program.
A District 2 standout in football and basketball with the Cavaliers, Beh initially committed to former Lions coach Bill O’Brien in 2013 before signing with Franklin’s staff the following February after O’Brien left for the NFL.
Brosnan, meanwhile, was part of the group of recruits that flipped from Vanderbilt to Penn State after Franklin got the job in Happy Valley.
Beset by multiple injuries in his first three years on campus, Brosnan appeared in just two games in 2016 and 11 total for the Lions.
Including the medical retirement of Chance Sorrell last year, Penn State’s 2014 offensive line class is down to just one — Chasz Wright. The redshirt junior was pressed into duty at right tackle late last season because of injuries and ended up starting the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.
Position changes: Franklin reiterated two moves that had been made earlier will carry through to spring ball. Johnathan Thomas will return to his original spot at running back while Jarvis Miller moves up to play linebacker.
Thomas arrived as part of a three-man class at running back in 2014 along with Nick Scott and Mark Allen. All three redshirted, but it was Thomas who initially generated the most buzz.
An injury set Thomas back, however, and his lack of on-field reps in recent years — torn knee ligaments cost him his senior season in high school — didn’t help matters.
When Saquon Barkley emerged in 2015, Thomas made the shift to linebacker for 2016 but did not immediately factor in there despite massive injury issues for the Lions at the position.
With Thomas back on offense, Miller will replace the depth at linebacker after spending much of the past two seasons at safety.
The 6-foot-2 Miller had been taking some reps at linebacker last fall, getting some more in the extra practices leading up to the Rose Bowl.
Like fellow safety-turned-linebacker Koa Farmer, Miller will work at the team’s field linebacker spot (Sam) as the Lions look to find a new starter.
Franklin also said that wideout Josh McPhearson will be working with the running backs with an eye at turning him into a return specialist.
Stadium thoughts: Penn State’s massive renovation plans for Beaver Stadium won’t begin for another five years at the very earliest. And even then, the project will likely take three or four more years to complete.
In other words, there isn’t much for a football coach focused on 2017 to talk about yet.
“For the most part, this has been something (for) the administration and outside consultants and those types of things,” Franklin said of the school’s new campus-wide facilities plan, which was released last week. “And from everything I’ve seen, it looks good. It looks good, the specifics, when it comes to football. I’m more concerned about getting our team better this spring and those types of things.”