It’s difficult to fathom just how many luxuries quarterback Trace McSorley provided the Penn State football program during his five-year career.
One of the biggest –– and maybe most important –– was his leadership. For each of the last two seasons, there was no debate as to who was the leader on offense.
Today, McSorley is throwing passes at the Baltimore Ravens’ training camp, and although junior Sean Clifford is the favorite to succeed him, head coach James Franklin has yet to name a starting quarterback. Without a clear-cut starting quarterback in camp, who will take the role as the unofficial leader of the offense?
Just a few moments into Franklin’s press conference at Penn State’s media day last weekend, it was clear the answer may come from someone on the offensive line; in particular, 6-foot-4, 341-pound guard Steven Gonzalez, who has played in 37 games.
“[Gonzalez] had a decision to make at the end of last year,” Franklin said, referring to the possibility of entering the NFL draft. “He made the right decision and came back. Really excited about his experience and development. Excited about what he’s going to do in camp from a leadership perspective, and I think he’s going to have a big year for us as well.”
Linemen aren’t often considered to be the leaders of an entire offense, but as one of the oldest guys on the roster, Gonzalez, 22, is a natural fit. He’s the lone remaining player on offense who was around in 2016 and played in the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl.
“It feels good to take that on, take that leadership role,” Gonzalez said. “I have played the most snaps, so it is good to bring that experience to the offensive line room.”
Gonzalez and his linemates have a difficult task ahead of them. The team has plenty of young, inexperienced players, and there will be a new starting quarterback and running back. Also, the projected starters at wide receiver and tight end are all sophomores, although they played meaningful snaps last season.
Even though Penn State lost two O-line starters (Ryan Bates and Connor McGovern) to the NFL, the line remains a strength. With so much turnover at the skill positions, the line will be called on to provide much-needed stability.
“You’d like [the line] to be that security blanket on your offense,” said offensive line coach Matt Limegrover. “When your offensive line is working and moving along at the rate you want it to, it takes the pressure off everybody. I think our guys realize that, and that we can really be a benefit to the entire organization by being as solid and as consistent as we can be.”
This season, the offensive line wants the spotlight.
“This year we have a shift in mentality. We want people talking about us,” said junior center Michal Menet. “Not because we gave up sacks or missed blocks, but because we dominated the whole game from the first snap to the last.”
This new mindset isn’t coming from Limegrover, either.
“That’s coming from them,” said Limegrover. “As a group, they’re hungry. They’ve taken a step back and said, ‘Why not us? We can be a group that can really make a difference.’ They put that upon themselves. There’s a lot of good veteran leadership in that room.”
Despite the leadership of Gonzalez, Menet, and junior tackle Will Fries, there are still going to be two new faces on the offensive line when Week 1 rolls around.
C.J. Thorpe and Mike Miranda will battle it out in camp to see who lines up to the right of Menet, while redshirt freshman Rasheed Walker is the favorite to earn the all-important left-tackle position.
Menet said that playing alongside Gonzalez and McGovern last season helped make things easier for him in his first year as a starter, and now it’s on him to provide that same reassurance to whoever is at right guard. The same goes for Gonzalez and the man to his left, Walker.