Matt Limegrover’s job might’ve been easier in 2016 with an injury-plagued offensive line.
“Because you don’t have many choices,” Limegrover said with a half-chuckle on his Thursday teleconference, “so you just look at the next guy and go, ‘Get in there,’ and you figure it out.”
Soon, though, Limegrover will have a good problem to deal with.
As it stands, Penn State’s offensive line is as follows from right tackle across to left tackle: Chasz Wright, Brendan Mahon, Connor McGovern, Steven Gonzalez and Ryan Bates. Those were the starting five in Penn State’s season opener against Akron.
Meanwhile, Andrew Nelson stood on the sideline and watched.
But when Nelson returns to full health, Limegrover has a decision to make.
“Chasz Wright is our starting right tackle. We won some very big games coming down to the end of last season and the Big Ten championship game and performed pretty well overall in a bowl game, in a high-level bowl game,” Limegrover said. “Chasz has been a valuable member to what we have going on, but when you have a guy like Nelson that’s able to get back and get back and be productive that just opens up a lot of pathways for you to make sure you get your best five on the field and those guys all know that in that room as well.
“That’s my job making sure it all works in a good way.”
Nelson, who has practiced since the start of fall camp, was deemed not ready to play by James Franklin last week. The Hershey native suffered a season-ending knee injury on Oct 8, 2016, against Maryland.
Franklin said in his Akron week press conference that Nelson, who’s made 27 starts for Penn State over three seasons, is set to have a significant role for the Nittany Lions this season. But he’s not expected to play on Saturday against Pitt.
Limegrover has noticed frustration mounting for Nelson, an understandable feeling given his position.
“I think it’s a lot harder on a lineman to come back because of what kind of stress you’re putting on that knee,” the coach said. “Sometimes what happens is they give those estimates on when a guy’s going to be back and, for those big guys, I think that’s so hard because they push and push and he’s done a fantastic job. It’s his senior year; he wants to make sure he’s contributing. Penn State means the world to him as a university, as a community and as a football program. And it’s tough when you know you could be out there contributing and you’re not.”
Still, Limegrover said, Nelson is “very close” to being back.
“He’s the leader of that group, and as he goes they all go,” the assistant said. “So having him in a good frame of mind and excited, that gets the energy up in that entire room and, like I said, he’s close to being back. And when he is, that’ll be a welcome addition both mentally and physically to that group.”
Gonzalez ‘gets into Hulk mode’
Steven Gonzalez used to be a quiet guy.
That’s not the case anymore, though. After starting three games in 2016, the redshirt sophomore built a better rapport with teammates, leaving the “lone wolf” attitude behind.
And Limegrover loves it.
“I joke with him all the time that I can’t shut him up anymore,” the coach said. “He’s in there, and he’s right in the middle of it. The guys like him. It’s kind of like he’s come out of his shell. It’s great to see that because I think there’s a comfort level and a confidence in him and what he can do.”
As for Gonzalez on the field, Limegrover is admittedly still trying to find “that button” to push to get the lineman going — because opposing defenses don’t want to see Gonzalez when he’s angry.
“When he gets irritated and agitated out there with his strength and his athletic ability, there’s going to be hell to pay,” Limegrover said. “I love it when kind of like he gets into Hulk mode. It’s like you can see the red mist glowing in his eyes and I’m like, ‘OK, man, you go do your thing.’”
As expected, it looks as if true freshman Mike Miranda will redshirt.
Limegrover said that Miranda — a three-star early enrollee that impressed in spring camp — is on a similar track to Will Fries and Michal Menet, a pair of highly touted freshmen that came close to playing in 2016 but ended up sitting out.
“If we don’t have to, we won’t burn his redshirt,” Limegrover said of Miranda. “As of right now, we like where he’s at and getting the work, but at the same time, we have more options this year than we even did last year where there are some pieces that can be moved around.”
Limegrover said Brendan Mahon and Ryan Bates have versatility to play different positions along the O-line, and even Connor McGovern can bump over to guard if need be.
So, unless catastrophe hits, Miranda won’t see the field in 2017.