Taking Stock: Offensive Line
Blue White Illustrated continues its multi-part series examining the Nittany Lion roster as it proceeds through winter workouts and eventually into spring practices. Today, we'll continue with a look at Penn State's offensive line and the departures of three-year starters Ryan Bates and Connor McGovern:
OUTLOOK "As Penn State's Offensive Line Turns" might not have a catchy soap opera title, but considering the past five seasons of football, sometimes it feels that way.
And in a very literal sense, that’s what the storyline comes down to for the Nittany Lions for the upcoming season. Given what was expected to be an experienced returning group, rather than returning all five starters on the offensive line, the Nittany Lions will look to fill two spots vacated by Ryan Bates and Connor McGovern.
Both early entrants to the NFL Draft, Bates and McGovern would have represented two of Penn State’s most experienced returning offensive linemen. McGovern started all 13 games for the Nittany Lions in 2018, 12 at right guard and once filling in for Menet at center. Bates opened the 2018 season at left tackle and stayed there until the 10th week of the season, then moving over to the right side next to McGovern.
That stability and versatility from Bates and McGovern weren’t just of value this season. Next to quarterback Trace McSorley’s 40 career starts, Bates was tied for the second-most career starts to his name at 35 following the Citrus Bowl.
You guessed it. McGovern, who started nine games as a true freshman during the 2016 season then proceeded to play in every game since.
Owning fewer career starts, but an asset lost nonetheless, right tackle Chasz Wright also graduated and extinguished his eligibility taking his 16 career starts with him.
Undeniable setbacks for the group and its overall level of experience, the Nittany Lions are not left to post HELP WANTED signs around Penn State’s campus looking for their replacements. Rather, head coach James Franklin quickly identified the remaining group as one that he’s “excited about” as the team progresses through winter workouts and into the start of spring practices next month.
In Steven Gonzalez (29 starts), Will Fries (20 starts), and Michal Menet (13 starts), the Nittany Lions return 3/5 of last year’s starters and certainly, plenty of talent. According to Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics, Menet graded out as Penn State’s second-best starting offensive lineman of the season (73.4) behind Bates (81.0) and ahead of McGovern (73.0). Gonzalez (68.4) and Fries (57.2) rounded out the group. Worth noting, in spite of a rough stretch of performances in the heart of the Big Ten schedule, Fries seemed to improve upon his move to left tackle in Week 10 and may have at times been injured, though Penn State does not disclose injuries.
Should assistant Matt Limegrover choose to leave those pieces in place, Fries at left tackle, Gonzalez at left guard, and Menet at center, that would leave just right guard and tackle to replace. If the option was to simply bump up the backups into starting roles from those two positions, Des Holmes would ascend at guard and the Lions would simply find a new right tackle.
Knowing Penn State’s preferences for versatility and finding the best five on the offensive line, though, that scenario seems unlikely.
Now in his third winter workouts with the program, Mike Miranda has to be in play as an option at guard or center. As evidenced last week in a tweet acknowledging standout performances in winter workouts, C.J. Thorpe has made the move back over to the offensive line, presumably back at guard. Holmes would appear to have the composition to line up at tackle.
And that’s saying nothing of redshirt freshmen tackle Rasheed Walker, interior lineman Juice Scruggs, and guard/tackle Bryce Effner, plus incoming freshmen Caedan Wallace and Saleem Wormley, and JUCO transfer Anthony Whigan.
If Limegrover’s comments regarding Menet are any indication, however, his spot - along with that of Gonzalez - would seem to be solidified heading into spring practice.
“(Menet) was made to be a center in this conference. I’ve been coaching in the conference pretty close to 10 years and have seen a lot of good offensive linemen, and he’s a guy I felt fit right into that mold,” said Limegrover. “He’s intelligent, loves the game, has tremendous physical skills, and it just kind of screamed that it was a good move, and he’s shown that there’s constant and steady improvement. The best compliment I can give him is, he doesn’t jump out for any of the wrong reasons. He’s not getting beat a lot, he’s not a penalty machine, his snaps have been on the money for a first-year guy. I think he’s done a remarkable job, and the exciting thing is, there’s still a lot more in that tank.”