There once was a time when Penn State’s O-Line was as reliable and consistent as the linebacker unit that gained fame as Linebacker-U. Names like Mike Munchak, Steve Wisniewski, Glenn Ressler, and Keith Dorney dot our historic landscape; the list is truly an endless barrage of All-Americans that called themselves Nittany Lions. In recent years, particularly in 2014, that well ran completely dry. The once dependable Penn State O-Line hit rock bottom due to circumstances I refuse to rehash ever again. Since then, they’ve been busy restocking the shelves. It’s been a grueling climb, but as we kick off this year’s edition of the Lions Pride Preseason Position Previews, the 2018 Penn State Pancake Makers stand front and center as a position of strength once again.
It’s hard to get a good gauge on last years unit considering that every defense they went up against used an extra defender or two, and sometimes three, to stack the box with the sole mission of putting the clamps on SuperQuon Barkley. A line that was expected to be much better in 2017 had their fair share of head-scratching moments. Saquon was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage far too many times for a talent as immense as his but then again, their focus on him enabled the other arsenal of playmakers to do their thing. The fourth quarter at Columbus and the quagmire the following week versus Sparty were glaring examples. The good news is, by the time January and the Fiesta Bowl rolled around, that O-Line was opening holes as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. The even better news is that with the exception of one senior, Brendan Mahon, the entire line returns intact in 2018.
Not only do four of last year’s starting five return, but the entire unit can now field three-deep at every position which was a luxury head coach James Franklin and third-year O-Line coach/running game coordinator Matt Limegrover simply did not have in the past. Center and preseason Rimington Trophy-candidate (nation’s top center) Connor McGovern and blindside tackle Ryan Bates, both entering their third year as starters, serve as the anchors. Guard Steven Gonzalez has quietly made himself a fixture in the trenches and the three of them combine to make as formidable a side as any you’ll find in college football. High school All-American Michael Menet finally appears ready as a redshirt sophomore and will battle redshirt freshmen Mike Miranda and the massive CJ Thorpe for the opportunity to fill the shoes left behind by Mahon at the other guard position. With that being said, both Menet and Miranda at various times have been mentioned potentially moving to center which would allow McGovern the chance to move back to guard, the position he played as a true freshman.
Mammoth Chasz Wright and Will Fries split time at left tackle a year ago and appear destined for another battle in August as camp begins. Both Des Holmes and Alex Gellerstedt have raised eyebrows this off-season as ones to watch in case injuries take a toll and I project Sterling Jenkins will inch ever closer to finally reaching his potential. Charlie Shuman and Zach Simpson both have the size to compete and Hunter Kelley has flipped-flopped between the O-Line and the D-Line, but last we saw at Lift For Life, he was sporting a white shirt to represent the offense, so consider him an option as well. Incoming freshmen Bryce Effner, Juice Scruggs and Rasheed Walker complete this newfound depth and word is, Walker has already turned heads as a candidate for early playing time.
Back in April, as the Lions prepared for Blue/White, Connor McGovern declared this the ‘Year of the O-Line’ and a few weeks ago at Lift For Life, he stood by that comment 100%. After years of doubt, depleted depth, and not living up to the expectations set by their predecessors, they enter this preseason widely viewed as a position of strength across the board. Last we saw, they were busy shredding the No. 2 ranked run defense of the Washington Huskies to the tune of over 500 total yards, 203 of them on the ground. With the core of that line set to return in 2018 and a cupboard full of blue-chip depth, there’s no reason to doubt that Connor and the rest of the O-line in blue and white won’t be making pancakes out of unsuspecting defensive ends and linebackers all season long.