On Monday, Penn State’s James Franklin stood at a podium inside the Marriott on North Michigan Avenue and gushed over his offensive line. Eerily, 363 days prior, at a podium inside the McCormick Place convention center five miles away, Franklin did the same thing.
Anyone watching the head coach’s press conference earlier this week had a serious case of deja vu. At back-to-back Big Ten media days, Franklin expressed unbridled excitement about his offensive line, a unit that hindered the Nittany Lions in 2014, 2015 and parts of 2016.
On July 25, 2017, Franklin said the group had “a chance to be one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten.” It wasn’t, even with Saquon Barkley running behind them. But the offensive line can be an advantage in 2018.
“I don’t know if you necessarily can replace a guy like (Barkley) from a production standpoint,” Franklin said a few days ago. “But I do think our offensive line for the first time since we’ve been here becoming a strength is going to help with that.”
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Barkley’s 1,903 scrimmage yards in 2017 is a staggering stat for Miles Sanders and company to replicate. But one can only imagine the numbers he would have put up behind an above average offensive line.
Guided by center Connor McGovern, guard Steven Gonzalez and some healthy combination of Ryan Bates, Brendan Mahon, Will Fries and Chasz Wright, Barkley led the Big Ten with 17 plays of 30 yards or more last year — but managed only 1,271 rushing yards and 5.86 yards per attempt. Those ranked 28th and 32nd in the nation, respectively.
Negative plays — largely stemming from poor blocking — significantly affected those stats. Of Barkley’s 217 rushing attempts, 36 of them were stopped for a loss. In Penn State’s defeat at Ohio State alone, the back was halted behind the line of scrimmage nine times.
“Last year, we became more efficient, but we still had too many negative plays. Tackles for loss and things like that,” Franklin said. “As we get to be better on the offensive line, we’re going to eliminate some of those negative plays.
“And the other thing, we had games where the running game disappeared against upper-tier talent in our league.”
Yep, that was a problem for Penn State. Barkley was limited to 63 rushing yards or fewer in five games. As a team, the Nittany Lions failed to reach the century mark five times. In Franklin’s eyes, those two areas of concern — negative plays and a sporadic non-existent running game — ought to be solved in 2018 by an experienced offensive line.
The coach said Penn State has eight or nine linemen “who could start for us or any number of Big Ten teams.” Mahon is the only starter from last year’s unit to graduate, leaving Bates, McGovern, Gonzalez, Fries and Wright as returning contributors. Those five combined for 64 starts in 2017.
Add up-and-comers like Michal Menet, C.J. Thorpe, Mike Miranda and Zach Simpson to the mix, and Penn State offensive line coach Matt Limegrover has options. It’s just a matter of where he’ll line up his top five guys. McGovern could feature at guard with Menet starting at center, or vice versa. Bates, who played guard in 2016 and started all eight games last year at left tackle, might switch over the right side.
However Limegrover decides to shuffle the line around, Franklin is confident in the situation, a feeling not felt four years ago.
When he arrived in Happy Valley in 2014, Franklin dealt with an offensive line room with little depth, ravaged by scholarship limitations resulting from NCAA sanctions. He half-joked on Monday, calling that introduction a “part of my pledge process” at Penn State.
With a promising 2018 unit, pledging is over. And hopefully for the Nittany Lions, so are the days of unfulfilled optimism.
“It’s like life. All the experiences that you go through make you appreciate it when you’re able to make some progress,” Franklin said. “I like where we’re at.”