“Oh, that’s an easy one.”
Veteran offensive lineman Andrew Nelson towered over reporters after Penn State football fall camp on Wednesday, grinning and eager to share what makes new position coach Matt Limegrover special.
“Positive attitude,” said Nelson. “I think coach Limegrover has taught me more about what it’s like on the field and in life to just constantly be positive and constantly have a great outlook, than he even has teaching me about football.”
Limegrover has taken the unit out for “bonding sessions,” and while most position groups around the country play mini-golf or go bowling, the assistant coach has instead taken his players on community service trips.
“I’m fantastic,” Limegrover had said just moments earlier, unintentionally justifying Nelson’s appraisal.
“Any better, I’d be twins.”
After arriving at Penn State this spring from a similar role at Minnesota, Limegrover knew he’d be working with a unit that posed unique challenges in the roster-depleting fallout that followed the sanctions levied, then lifted following the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Throughout the spring and fall, he’s been shuffling the line around — one that now holds a true two-deep — to see which pieces might fit where. And, by all accounts, he’s thrilled to be doing it.
“You know, this group of guys, they’re willing to put the work in,” he said. “There has not been a single day when I have come out here, and I’ve been around groups when I’ve had to pull teeth. … These guys … I don’t have to pull teeth. I don’t have to come out here and kick ’em in the tail end and tell them it’s not acceptable.”
One of the most highly-scrutinized spots along the line last season was at left tackle, and after Nelson spent all spring at the position he has moved back to the right. Redshirt junior Brendan Mahon is getting the largest share of reps on the left after playing mostly guard last season, and Limegrover is confident he will have one of the starting spots on the line. But which one?
“It’s easy for me to play either position,” said Nelson, who added that it doesn’t feel like a competition between him and Mahon at left tackle. “Coach Limegrover really is just trying to figure out where guys can play best.”
Also being tested on the line with the first teamers are freshmen Connor McGovern and Michal Menet. McGovern played his reps in the media allotment of practice at right guard, rotating through those reps with Menet.
“Nothing surprises me anymore in this game,” chipped Limegrover, shaking his head. “I think both Connor and Michal are guys that came in and mentally they feel like they were guys who wanted to play right away. Physically, they have that ability.”
Still, Nelson cautioned against getting too reliant on seeing either of the two freshmen suit up on the first team come week one.
“I think they’re both great players and you see that in camp, I mean, I remember my freshman year being wide-eyed and wondering what was going on when I was in on first team,” he said. “That happens for guys that come in and do well. Those two have a long way to go. But anytime you can play well enough in your first camp as a freshman to even get reps with the ones, you’re doing well.”
The shuffling is necessary, but after three years spent in constant rotation, Nelson is ready to settle down and specialize in a spot.
“I think we’re pretty close,” he said. “I think that’s something that weighs on coach Limegrover’s mind a lot, is trying to get a (front) five that can get together and gel together and get used to each other, because in the past, we’ve rotated a lot. Guys have played sometimes three positions in one game. … In the past, yes, it was more of a ‘had to’ thing. There weren’t really many options. When certain people went down, to get the best people out there you had to switch people around.”
But the problem that once plagued Penn State — everyone had to be versatile because there simply weren’t enough able bodies — is diminishing, replaced by one much more manageable. The unit has the pieces; where do they fit?
“Now that we have a few veteran players who have played certain positions for awhile, if we could get a five like that … I’d like to see it done as soon as possible,” said Nelson. “He’s gonna put the best five out there, and if it’s guys who aren’t used to those positions, so be it.”
Said Limegrover: “The thing you don’t wanna do is put out a de facto starting five and then guys say, ‘Well, that’s the way it’s gonna be.’ The biggest thing right now is that we have tremendous competition. … You want that competition for as long as possible. We won’t get too many more practices in, and then we’ll start settling in.”