Penn State Building Tremendous Depth Along Offensive Line
While Joe Moorhead and Brent Pry deservedly get the lion’s share of kudos for their success this season, Penn State wouldn’t be heading to Pasadena without Matt Limegrover.
Limegrover, who joined James Franklin’s staff last January, held the titles of assistant head coach, offensive coordinator, and of course, offensive line coach during his time at Minnesota. His ability to quickly develop the Nittany Lion linemen hasn’t gone unnoticed.
After giving up by far the most sacks in the Big Ten for two years in a row (2014-15), Penn State is a completely different team this season, in large part because of the play of its revolving front five. Despite dealing with three season-ending injuries to veterans Andrew Nelson, Brendan Mahon, and Paris Palmer, the Nittany Lions haven’t missed a beat on their journey to the program’s fourth Rose Bowl. They only surrendered 23 sacks this fall, as opposed to 83 the previous two seasons combined.
Limegrover loves to cross-train his linemen so they’re ready to rotate at a moment’s notice. Although it’s never ideal to have to shuffle mid-contest, the long-term benefits are already becoming clear. Three freshmen (one true) started for Penn State in its Big Ten Championship comeback win, proving Limegrover’s effectiveness at preparing his guys for the biggest stages.
Ryan Bates, who won the starting left guard spot during preseason camp, didn’t blink when he was asked to slide out and protect Trace McSorley’s blindside at left tackle — a position he played at Archbishop Wood and as an Under Armour All-American. The redshirt freshman also has significant experience snapping the ball, as he spent his first season on campus doing just that at center. Standing 6-foot-4, 305 pounds, Bates is as versatile as they come for a player who saw the field for the first time in September. The future is bright as can be for the USA Today Freshman All-American.
Bates noted that a few of the older guys have taken it upon themselves to help guide him through the process of switching positions while speaking at Penn State’s Rose Bowl Media Day last week. He also mentioned the main things he’s been focusing on in practice lately.
“Pass protection, working on my kick-step. I sat down with Paris Palmer and Andrew Nelson and they helped me out a lot with the rules and transitioning from guard to tackle,” Bates said. “I’m playing guys like T.J. Watt, I’ll just use him as an example. Those defensive end, outside linebacker-type guys that are real athletic and strong — they have that versatility where they can hit you with a speed rush or a power move.”
When the team plane arrives at LAX on Monday, Bates and many of his teammates will have the chance to explore life on the Left Coast for the first time, including a trip to the Golden State’s premier food chain.
“I’ve never been to California,” Bates said. “I have a friend who plays football at Cal Berkeley. I played high school ball with him, and all he talks about is In-N-Out Burger, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Bates isn’t the only youngster along the o-line with unlimited potential in front of him. Connor McGovern, who became the first Nittany Lion since Stefen Wisniewski to make a start during his true freshman campaign, is another guy who brings outstanding utility. The Larksville, Pa., native played some right tackle during spring ball after enrolling early last January. He eventually overtook senior Derek Dowrey as the starting right guard, but appears to be Penn State’s replacement for the graduating Brian Gaia at center next fall.
Steven Gonzalez, a redshirt freshman out of Union City, N.J., stepped up when the Nittany Lions needed him most, making the first two starts of his career against Rutgers and Wisconsin. He’s listed as the first-team left guard on the team’s latest depth chart. Penn State will return six offensive linemen with starting experience in 2017, and there’s finally a solid three-deep at each position with a fierce competition brewing for reps.
“We’ve had a lot of things change in the past year, and I think it was change for the better,” Bates said in the locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium. “Seeing where we are now — we’re a young team — and what we could be, it’s scary seeing what we could do.”
Mahon and Nelson could very well return to the lineup as redshirt seniors if their injury rehabs go according to plan. Bates and McGovern are also locks to nail down two of the starting jobs, likely at left guard and center, respectively. Rising redshirt junior Chasz Wright could stick at right tackle or slide to guard if need be, while Gonzalez and Michal Menet will likely battle it out for the guard spot opposite Bates. Sterling Jenkins saw time on special teams this year and might be Penn State’s left tackle of the near future with another strong offseason. Brendan Brosnan and Noah Beh may also factor into the competition at tackle as redshirt juniors.
In addition to Menet, the Nittany Lions feel really good about rising redshirt freshmen tackles Will Fries and Alex Gellerstedt, both of whom improved by leaps and bounds during their first season on campus. Gellerstedt was named Scout Team Offensive Player of the Year alongside backup running back Irvine Paye at the team’s awards banquet. Penn State also holds commitments from four incoming freshmen in Under Armour All-American CJ Thorpe, a steamroller of a guard in Mike Miranda, and a pair of high-upside tackles in Robert Martin and Desmond Holmes.
What once was a position group that held Penn State back in the aftermath of the scholarship reductions is now a full-fledged strength. It’ll be exciting to see how the competition for snaps shakes out this spring and summer, that’s for sure.