Penn State’s first-team offensive line could have entered 2019 with a combined 126 starts to its name. Instead, Matt Limegrover’s unit will take on a rigorous Big Ten slate with two fresh faces — and 68 fewer starts — filling in for a pair of stalwarts.
Connor McGovern and Ryan Bates are gone. McGovern, Mel Kiper Jr.’s No. 2-rated guard, declared early for the 2019 NFL draft after the Citrus Bowl. Bates, a voice on Penn State’s leadership council for three years, unexpectedly followed suit.
When spring camp begins March 13, Limegrover’s evaluation process begins. He is tasked with replacing a duo that’s helped anchor the line for the last three seasons. But veteran Michal Menet believes the unit will be ready for what lies ahead.
“Very happy for those guys, and I wish them nothing but the best. Lost some friends,” Menet said at Saturday’s Thon Explorers Program. “But there are a bunch of young guys who are ready and willing to step up. ... They know there are some spots available.”
Saturday was the first time anyone in the Lasch Building addressed McGovern and Bates’ departures. Head coach James Franklin spoke for the first time since the Citrus Bowl on National Signing Day but was not asked about the seasoned offensive linemen. Instead, Franklin was peppered with questions about the firing of wide receivers coach David Corley, the hiring of Gerad Parker and the transfer portal exodus.
Indeed, it has been a wild offseason for the Nittany Lions. On top of the roster and coaching staff exits, Penn State added 11 scholarship early enrollees. Incorporating them while later losing another coach in special teams assistant Phil Galiano so close to spring ball has made for an interesting start to the semester.
Menet's calm demeanor: Behind the cloud of what’s seen from outside as chaos, Menet has maintained a calm demeanor on Saturday.
This time last year, the center had to learn the ropes and prepare for his first season as a starter. The Exeter Township product went on to start 12 games. Now, he plans on being “one of those guys that younger guys can lean on whenever they need advice or need to be shown the way.”
Menet also said guard Steven Gonzalez (28 career starts) and tackle Will Fries (18 starts) have stepped up this offseason, taking on leadership roles. Gonzalez and Fries are expected to continue starting on the left side, with Menet still slotted in at center.
But McGovern and Bates’ old spots are up for grabs.
Contenders for open spots: At guard, CJ Thorpe will be a serious contender. After switching to defensive tackle last season to help out with depth, he’s back on the offensive side. Mike Miranda will also push for time. So will Des Holmes.
At tackle, it looks like a two-man race between Rasheed Walker and Anthony Whigan after Alex Gellerstedt transferred to Virginia. Walker, a rising redshirt sophomore, appeared in two games while redshirting in 2018. Whigan, meanwhile, enrolled in January after playing two years at Lackawanna C.C.
According to the center, Whigan has been “working his butt off ... trying to show us what he’s got” this winter. Meanwhile, Menet has gone up against Thorpe directly during lifting sessions.
“It’s nice to have that competitive edge back on our side,” Menet said. “He’s a a great competitor. Always has something to say when he’s working out, which is good. I think that helps motivate everybody.”
Making progress: Menet made sure to note that every offensive lineman has performed well in the weight room. And he expressed confidence that whoever fills in for Bates and McGovern will continue the progress Penn State made up front in 2018.
According to Football Outsiders, the Nittany Lions ranked fifth nationally in power success rate (percentage of runs on third and fourth down, two or less yards to go, that achieved a first down or TD) and 34th in stuff rate (percentage of RB carries stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage) last season. Penn State ranked 89th in power success rate and 95th in stuff rate in 2017.
Of course, Miles Sanders’ north-south, one-cut running style had something to do with that success. And now he is off to the NFL with Bates and McGovern. But a running back room of Ricky Slade, Noah Cain, Devyn Ford, Journey Brown and CJ Holmes is talented enough to repeat, or surpass, Sanders’ production in 2018.
The offensive line will need to do its job freeing up running lanes. Menet doesn’t think that will be a problem even with a pair of new starters.
“They’ve been going through the process, waiting for their moment,” the veteran said. “Guys on our line are hungry.”