Connor McGovern has a story to tell about the 2018 football season, a tale he’s confident enough to scream from the Happy Valley trenches.
A story, he knows, Penn State fans have long been hoping comes true.
“I think this year,” the former Lake-Lehman star said boldly Tuesday, “will be the Year of the Offensive Line.”
That’s a story the Nittany Lions have told before, and it turned out to be a fairy tale. McGovern insists this time is different, that Penn State’s long-embattled offensive line is bigger, stronger, deeper and more cohesive.
That collectively, it is ready to become, as McGovern put it, the leaders of a potentially explosive offense.
Experienced, deep group: After losing one starter — right guard Brendan Mahon — off of last year’s squad, the Nittany Lions could make that claim based on experience alone. But head coach James Franklin insisted on the day spring practice opened in March that its not just the fact four starters return that’s pushing the narrative.
It’s what offensive line coach Matt Limegrover and the team’s strength and conditioning staff are developing behind the scenes that might make McGovern’s claim ring closer to the truth than like any have in the recent past.
“Last year, and maybe the end of the previous year, we got to the point where we had a scholarship two-deep for the first time,” Franklin said. “Now, we’re what I would call a ‘legitimate two-deep.’
“I think we’ve got a two-deep you can win with in the Big Ten.”
Bottom line is, the Nittany Lions coaches listed 10 offensive linemen on their depth charts the last two seasons, but they had no intention of using some of those players. Some were considered certain redshirts.
Penn State’s recent offensive lines consisted of one or two players who focused on one position and others able to rotate between the guard and center spots and the tackles. The line was long hamstrung by the NCAA’s 2012 scholarship reductions.
Depth can be fixed only by solid recruiting and time in college football, and Penn State may finally be ready to benefit from both.
Settling into roles: McGovern is settling into his second season as the starting center, and it stands to reason that sophomore Will Fries has the inside track on the left tackle spot. But as spring practice progresses, Penn State has three other spots to begin the process of filling, with a combination of seasoned veterans and gifted youngsters to compete for time heading into the summer.
Junior Ryan Bates has experience at left guard and both tackle spots. Senior Chasz Wright has started off and on at right tackle. Junior Steven Gonzalez has played both guard spots.
All of the more experienced players can expect a significant push for playing time from a handful of youngsters who the coaching staff raved about since the dawn of last season.
Michal Menet, once considered the top high school prospect in Pennsylvania, overcame injury concerns to have a big spring at right guard. Massive CJ Thorpe and hard-charging Mike Miranda, both of whom redshirted in 2017, could factor in at guard, and Miranda is even taking snaps at center.
Another pair of youngsters who’ve never played, Des Holmes and Alex Gellerstedt, are raising eyebrows at tackle.
This spring is different: Without counting on incoming freshmen, and largely casting aside the plan to make every lineman versatile enough to overcome every possible scenario that would expose its past lack of depth, McGovern said it’s easy to see why the spring of 2018 is a bit different for the Penn State offensive line.
They’re able to play to strengths, to feel like they can more easily get on the same page, to communicate better.
“We are all comfortable. We’re all a year older,” McGovern said. “We’re just going to be able to be ourselves and come out and dominate up front.”
It’s a story that has been told before at this time of year. It’s also one, McGovern maintains, will have a different ending this time around.