STATE COLLEGE — Matt Limegrover insists he never sleeps well at this time of year. There’s always something to worry about.
The first game of the season is approaching, and there’s nothing like the opener to show you whether what you thought was right all along actually is.
For the first time during his tenure as Penn State’s offensive line coach, the nerves have somewhat subsided this month. The talk of massive gains in productivity from the offensive line is as common as those nerves every August, but the talk has always yielded more questions by the time September gets rolling.
This year, though, he’s more hopeful than ever the questions will finally fade, that his group won’t be creating the biggest doubts on offense. That it will be leading it, instead.
“We are more settled this year,” Limegrover assured, “than we’ve probably ever been.”
A victim of the Sandusky scandal: For generations the signature unit of championship-caliber offenses, the Penn State offensive line spent the last six seasons fighting back toward mere respectability. Arguably, no position on the team suffered more from a depth perspective from the scholarship reductions in 2012 and 2013 following the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.
Inarguably, it greatly contributed to the battering of quarterback Christian Hackenberg in 2014 and 2015. And, the last two seasons, it hampered an otherwise star-studded Nittany Lions offense in many of the biggest games it played.
There’s an insistence things are going to be different this time. There’s a feeling that, finally, the rebuild is nearing an epiphany.
“I think our offensive line is a strength,” head coach James Franklin said. “I’m probably different than some people, but I actually think we made dramatic improvement last year.”
Dealing with adversity: When Limegrover arrived in Happy Valley in 2016, he was presented a situation unlike any he encountered with Minnesota, or Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois, for that matter.
He opened the 2016 season with 16 scholarship players — only five of whom had tangible playing time during their Nittany Lions careers. One of his starters, Ryan Bates, was a redshirt freshman. Another, a fresh-out-of-Lake-Lehman Connor McGovern, got pushed into the starting lineup before the first month of the season ended. Two of his opening-day starters — center Brian Gaia and right guard Derek Dowrey — were converted defensive tackles. The starting left tackle, Paris Palmer, was a transfer from Lackawanna College.
Already thin on experience, the Nittany Lions got hit by injuries. Hard.
Right tackle Andrew Nelson blew out a knee. Guard Brendan Mahon lost the last part of the season to an undisclosed injury. Palmer went down, too.
By the time the Nittany Lions shocked the college football world by streaking their way into the Big Ten Championship Game that year, they had fully shown off the one capability that had gotten them through the toughest times: versatility. Bates moved from guard to tackle. Little used guard Steven Gonzalez and tackle Chasz Wright got chances and swam more than they sank.
“You say it was versatility, but I say it was necessity,” Limegrover shrugged. “I was looking around trying to figure out who was dressed and not walking with a limp, so he could be the next guy in during the Big Ten Championship Game. We were literally down to just five guys. There weren’t a lot of options.”
Options now available: Now, options aren’t a problem.
Four of the linemen who started that Big Ten title tilt — Bates (left tackle), Gonzalez (left guard), McGovern (right guard) and Wright (right tackle) — are expected to start this season, at the same positions they played in that game. And now, the top-flight prospects Franklin, Limegrover and the rest of the staff recruited to build depth are older, stronger and pushing for playing time. One of those prospects, redshirt sophomore Michal Menet, is slated to start at center.
“All the guys on the offensive line now, we’ve been together for three years,” McGovern said. “You try to have the same five guys or the same guys who rotate in. You want to be very comfortable with everyone around you, and that’s how I feel this year. All of our guys, across the board, are very comfortable with each other.”
Thing is, they said similar things last year.
Attitude adjustment: The difference now? Attitude, Limegrover said.
Last year, he thought linemen were content to wait for Saquon Barkley or Trace McSorley to make a great play, which they did so often. But against Washington in the Fiesta Bowl, the group took a more proactive approach against the Huskies’ two star interior forces, massive Vita Vea and Greg Gaines. The Lions rushed for 203 yards, threw for 342, and McSorley was sacked just once in a 35-28 win.
“I think those guys took it as a huge challenge,” Limegrover said. “There was a chip. It was kind of, ‘OK, no one’s talking about us. No one’s saying anything about us. Let’s make sure we’re ready to go.’ You don’t always get that from individuals or teams in bowl games. But that group was ready to go.
“I told them, that needs to be the standard, not the exception.”
Time will judge progress: Will it be? Limegrover’s group consists of five players who started multiple games last year and four others he has mentioned with a shot to compete for starting roles by season’s end.
Is it nearing where it wants to be? Or there? Time will tell.
“I think there’s still a difference between having a legitimate Big Ten offensive line that we had last year, and being able to have an offensive line that allows to you compete consistently with top-10 programs,” Franklin said. “We took a really nice step forward last year, and that’s still what we’re working toward.”