STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — If all had gone according to plan for Penn State, it would be entering the 2019 season with five returning starters on the offensive line.
But when Connor McGovern and Ryan Bates left school early to enter the NFL draft, that potentially went by the wayside.
Even without those departures, the Nittany Lions’ offensive line would have been under the microscope anyway, since it was a group that struggled at times last season, especially in pass protection. Now, with some new starters thrown into the mix, the equation gets a bit murkier.
With that in mind, coach James Franklin and his staff have ratcheted up the attention paid to the offensive line, even getting some help from outside the program.
“We have pounded that pretty hard,” Franklin said after practice on Wednesday. “[Offensive line coach Matt Limegrover] has had a busy offseason. … We’ve had two NFL offensive line coaches come and visit us and pay a considerable amount of time with us. We’ll do that again. We’ve got another guy coming back. Just asking a bunch of questions, little details where we can get better and continue to grow.
“And even if it’s just adding one more tool in these guys’ tool belts. So [redshirt junior tackle] Will Fries, give him one more tool that doesn’t have to become his primary but gives him another answer against, you know, different defensive ends. So I’m pleased with it. It’s still a work in progress.”
Fries is one of three of the Nittany Lions’ returnees up front at right tackle, joined by redshirt junior center Michael Menet and fifth-year senior guard Steven Gonzalez. All of them started at least 12 games last season, and Menet says he has been trying to step up as a vocal leader to help some of the new guys.
As for those new guys, redshirt freshman Rasheed Walker figures to plug in at left tackle. Menet and Franklin each praised him Wednesday.
At the vacant guard spot, Franklin says redshirt sophomores Mike Miranda and Central Catholic alum C.J. Thorpe will rotate with Gonzalez throughout the season, making up a three-man group of contributors for the two guard positions.
Menet insists that all three are ready for the opportunity.
“All three guys do a really good job of just understanding the playbook,” Menet said. “They all have that down, knowing what they need to do. So it all comes down to … the consistency factor. And right now, all three guards are playing extremely well.”
Regardless of who plays which snaps, Penn State will be looking for improvement on the line.
Going against the Nittany Lions’ defensive front seven day in and day out can’t hurt the group’s progress, since that defensive front might be the team’s most talented unit entering 2019.
Beyond that, though, Menet says the offensive line is trying to play with more toughness and impose its will on defensive fronts.
“At the start of camp, we kind of talked, coach Franklin, coach Limegrover, the offensive lines, tight ends, and just said, ‘Hey, this is who we’re going to be going forward, so everybody get on board,’ ” Menet said when asked about playing with a “mean streak.”
“And we’ve just been working every single day to consistently improve our mentality and who we are as a group, and I think it’s been going really well so far.”
Menet admitted that such a mindset has been talked about in past seasons, but he feels the “buy-in” from this year’s group has improved.