Connor McGovern can still remember his first spring on the offensive line, the way his head spun after every practice and how nervous he felt making calls as a freshman center.
Now a junior, McGovern said those days are long behind him. He’s a lot more comfortable, and a lot more confident, this spring. In fact, he said the same could be said of the entire offensive line.
“I think this year will be the year for the offensive line,” McGovern said earlier this week. “We’re improving from last year. Every man up front has taken steps forward, and I think we’ll be the leaders of the offense this year.”
Penn State coach James Franklin has often said that linemen should ideally not start until their third year with the program. And, for the first time since he arrived in Happy Valley, Franklin finally has his wish.
All six players competing for the five starting spots — McGovern, Ryan Bates, Steven Gonzalez, Will Fries, Michael Menet, Chasz Wright — have spent at least three seasons with the team and at their respective positions. All six played in at least 10 games last season, all six combined for 83 career starts, and only one 2017 starter in Brendan Mahon has exhausted his eligibility. Everyone but Menet has started at least nine games.
McGovern said that maturity, that experience, has already shown on the practice field.
“I definitely feel like this year we’re more on the same page, communication-wise,” he added. “We’re talking a lot more; we’re a lot more comfortable playing with each other. I think that’s going to help us progress even more this year.”
McGovern’s words aren’t new. It’s not unusual for Penn State’s offensive linemen to express confidence in the preseason. There was hope in 2014, and the Nittany Lions allowed 44 sacks. There were vows in 2015, when opponents racked up 39 sacks. Even the last two seasons haven’t been great — in 2016, Penn State ranked No. 94 in tackles-for-loss allowed and, last year, the Lions regressed to No. 112 in that same category.
But there is actually reason for McGovern’s optimism in 2018. The offensive line is as competitive as it’s been post-sanctions, with several backups earning praise throughout the spring — such as redshirt sophomore Alex Gellerstedt, along with redshirt freshmen Des Holmes and C.J. Thorpe.
“C.J., probably in the run game, may be our best guy,” Franklin said Wednesday night. “He plays with an attitude, he plays with a chip. He tries to finish people. He’s got a nasty streak. He’s everything you want in the run game, but he’s behind in the pass game.”
Only McGovern started every game last year at the same position. Injuries halted any consistency; it wasn’t until the final five games where the lineups stayed put. And progress was evident down the stretch.
In the last three games last season, Penn State allowed just four sacks and nine stops in the backfield — when, if it continued on its pace earlier in the season, should have permitted 7.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss. PSU was especially impressive against Washington, one of the nation’s best run defenses.
“I definitely think that was a boost to our confidence,” McGovern said, referring to his line’s performance against the Huskies in the Fiesta Bowl. “But we just want to keep improving from that.”
So far, according to coaches and teammates, it’s been “mission accomplished” for the offensive line. Franklin said he’s learned more about the line this spring than any other position group, and even players on the defensive line have picked up on the different mindset this year.
“They’re doing pretty well, actually,” defensive end Ryan Buchholz said. “They don’t really have any young guys starting or anything, so they’re doing well. ... They stepped up a lot.”
Added Franklin: “We came into it knowing that we thought the O-line had a chance to be a strength and, so far, it seems to be that’s the case.”