Penn State Football

Will Penn State’s offensive line be better than last season, and what should fans expect in 2019?

Why PSU OT Rasheed Walker is ready to start

Walker, a redshirt freshman, is slated to start at left tackle after Ryan Bates left early for the NFL.
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Walker, a redshirt freshman, is slated to start at left tackle after Ryan Bates left early for the NFL.

Camp opens for Penn State on Friday and, in preparation, we’re tackling the most serious issues facing the Nittany Lions every day until then. Up today, in our final installment: Will Penn State’s offensive line be better than last year, and what should fans expect?

If there’s one position group that has struggled most in a post-sanctions Penn State world, it’s been the offensive line.

Former coach Bill O’Brien focused more on skill-players than linemen so, when James Franklin arrived in 2014, he couldn’t even field two full offensive lines at the Blue-White Game. It’s been a complete rebuild since then, packed with nationally replayed mistakes and recruiting misses.

But last season was a turning point. For Franklin’s first four seasons, the Nittany Lions’ OL ranked between No. 94 and No. 118 in tackles for loss allowed, a stat that assistant coach Matt Limegrover has previously said he takes a lot of pride in. Last year? Penn State ranked No. 34 nationally in that category.

There are still shortcomings — hello, pass-blocking — but this offensive line no longer needs a generational back or Heisman-contending quarterback to make up for its deficiencies. This is no longer one of the Big Ten’s worst units and there are clear positives to the offensive line, something that couldn’t be said earlier in Franklin’s tenure.

So let’s break it down:

What’s different this season, and how good are the newcomers?

Two multiyear starters are gone in Connor McGovern and Ryan Bates, who bolted early for the NFL. McGovern was a third-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys, while Bates was an undrafted free agent of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Their departures are significant, but it could’ve been even worse. Offensive guard Steven Gonzalez, a 29-game starter, seriously considered declaring early before sticking with Penn State for his fifth and final season.

Finding replacements on the offensive line is a task nearly every Power 5 school has to deal with every offseason. And Penn State’s replacement candidates are no slouches. Taking over for Bates at left tackle will be redshirt freshman Rasheed Walker, a top-50 high school prospect who traveled to away games last season and now stands at 6-foot-6 and 324 pounds.

McGovern’s replacement isn’t as clear. At this point, Mike Miranda and OL-turned-DT-turned-OL C.J. Thorpe are battling for the starting spot, but it’s difficult to pick a favorite. Even OL coach Matt Limegrover said they might split time.

“We’re going to have a heck of a battle at right guard in fall camp,” Limegrover said last month. “Those are both guys that I’m very high on, so I think there’s going to be battle and whoever kind of ends up winning that — maybe they split time; maybe one guy definitely takes the lead — I think that’s going to be an area I’m really excited to see develop and grow.”

Thorpe is known for his aggression and mean streak. When Penn State experienced some depth issues at defensive tackle last season, he temporarily moved over to defense to help — and now he’s permanently back on offense. Miranda is more experienced on the line, playing in every game last season, and the redshirt sophomore came into Penn State as a four-star prospect.

But fans’ excitement level should definitely be at its highest with Walker. He may be young, but he was widely regarded as one of the nation’s five best offensive tackles coming out of high school. After competing against potential top-10 NFL draft pick Yetur Gross-Matos in the spring, he has impressed a lot of his teammates with his development.

“Rasheed is athletic as anything, probably as much as me and Micah (Parsons),” DE Jayson Oweh said in May. “I mean, he’s big — but he can move. If you think you can beat him on the rush, no. He’s going to be right there. He’s physical. He tries to end D-ends, D-tackles. He finishes his job, and he’s really smart. I look to him to have a crazy year.”

What’s the depth chart, and what are the strengths/weaknesses?

Let’s get right into the depth chart — LT: Rasheed Walker, LG: Steven Gonzalez, C: Michal Menet, RG: CJ Thorpe or Mike Miranda, RT: Will Fries

Gonzalez (29 starts), Menet (12 starts) and Fries (20 starts) have a combined 61 starts, so the nucleus here is an experienced one. And, as mentioned above, the line took a step forward last season.

According to Football Outsiders, the Nittany Lions boasted one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in the country. Penn State’s “line yards per carry” — a statistic that tries to take into account the rush yards the line is responsible for — ranked it No. 19 nationally at 2.81 yards per carry, compared to its 2017 ranking of No. 63. Only Wisconsin (No. 1; 3.36 ypc) and Minnesota (No. 11; 2.91 yc) fared better in the Big Ten last season.

Pass-blocking was a completely different story. Through nine games last season, Penn State allowed pressure on 34 percent of its drop-backs, one of the worst rates in the nation according to Pro Football Focus. And its sack rate wasn’t much better.

Per Football Outsiders, Penn State ranked No. 90 by allowing sacks on 7.6 percent of its passes that didn’t come in garbage time.

That’s a lot of numbers to take in. But the important takeaway here is that Penn State improved leaps and bounds in its rushing offense. The passing numbers aren’t so cut and dried; it’s possible the receivers not gaining as much separation made Trace McSorley hold on to the ball a little bit longer. And the fact Penn State often faced third-and-long situations put it at a clear disadvantage.

In fact, the latter was pretty evident. One last set of numbers to note: On obvious passing downs, Penn State allowed sacks at a 12.8 percent clip — which ranked it No. 116 in the nation. On the flip side, it was just fine in short-yardage situations. On plays where Penn State needed 2 yards or less for a first down or TD, it converted on 83.9 percent of its opportunities — the ninth-best rate in the country.

That’s a wide gulf between run-blocking and pass-blocking. But with a new receivers coach and the fact Franklin ideally wants to incorporate the running back or tight end more often as a safety valve, those other variables shouldn’t carry as much weight this season.

Can this OL be better than last season?

Absolutely. Will it? I’d predict yes.

Sure, losing two players — who still had eligibility left — certainly hurts. But this offensive line showed tremendous growth in the run game, and C.J. Thorpe might be the most aggressive offensive lineman that Penn State has. Noah Cain hits the holes hard and, with more depth than previous seasons, it’s difficult seeing the rushing game taking a step backward.

The key, really, is pass-blocking and the identity of this offense. If Penn State finds itself in as many third-and-long situations as last season, that’s not going to help the offensive line at all. On non-passing downs that resulted in passes (i.e. plays such as second-and-4) Penn State was average in allowing sacks, ranking No. 56 nationally at 4.6 percent.

Limegrover has received a lot of criticism since taking over for Herb Hand in 2016. But the offensive line took a bigger step forward last season than most fans realize; if Limegrover can simply maintain the run-blocking while improving the pass-blocking, this unit should take a big step forward in 2019.