Drawing a Line
The 2015 season for Penn State had plenty of ups and downs; although, their 7-6 record can be viewed as a positive considering how much the offense struggled to move the ball. This was mainly due to the Nittany Lions’ struggles along the offensive line.
In 13 games, Penn State’s offensive line allowed 39 sacks, resulting a combined loss of 230 yards. Both totals ranked in the bottom 15 among all NCAA teams. Being under constant pressure from defenders was part of the reason behind quarterback Christian Hackenberg—considered one of the most promising NFL prospects at the position—ranking 76th in passing efficiency.
In addition, Penn State ranked in the bottom 15 in tackles for loss allowed, giving up an average of seven per game.
Longtime Franklin offensive coordinator John Donovan paid for the poor offensive numbers with his job, as Donovan was dismissed shortly after the season and replaced with Fordham head coach and ex-Akron offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.
During an end of season teleconference in January, Franklin placed priority on offense and special teams as areas of concern.
“You look at the numbers, there's no doubt about it, that's the area we probably need to take the biggest step…” Franklin said. “That's been an emphasis in recruiting for us this year, as well, and the development of the players that we have.”
Greg Pickel, the recruiting analyst for the Nittany Lions for Penn Live, said that Franklin’s incoming class showcases the coach’s plan to strengthen the offensive line.
“Penn State has done a tremendous job recruiting the offensive line in this cycle,” Pickel lauded. “Especially considering the fact that the program lost its highly regarded line coach, Herb Hand, and had to replace him quickly.”
Hand, who had coached Franklin’s offensive lines since 2011, left Penn State to take the same position at Auburn. He played a big role in the Nittany Lions landing four highly-regarded linemen in February.
Center Connor McGoven and tackle Alex Gellerstedt, who both enrolled early, as well as Michal Menet and Will Fries, all have the potential to improve the line, according to Pickel.
McGovern (6'5" 308) and Menet (6'5" 273) are both four-star recruits from Pennsylvania. Fries (6'6" 280), from Cranford, NJ, is also considered to be a four-star recruit, while Gellerstedt (6'7" 275), from Dublin, OH, is a three-star prospect.
This is a strong first step; however, Pickel does not expect them to play right away.
“Menet is very advanced, and really all four of them are,” Pickel said. “But it’s very difficult to get offensive linemen ready to go at the level of play the Big Ten has year in and year out.”
Franklin has emphasized offensive line recruiting the past two seasons, as four highly regarded linemen—led by Baldwin High School five-star prospect Sterling Jenkins—joined the team in the class of 2015 as well.
Junior college signee Paris Palmer made an impact quickly, assuming the starting left tackle job, while the others redshirted but flashed their potential,
“Ryan Bates, an interior lineman, is the name to watch most closely this spring and summer, as he was said to have had a very productive fall. This winter will be big for him,” explained Pickel. “The same goes for Steven Gonzalez, who is probably an interior guy too, but did receive praise from the staff for his scout team work.”
During that January teleconference, Franklin, despite the team’s turmoil at the position, expressed confidence in Matt Limegrover, a Pittsburgh native, as the new offensive line coach replacing Hand.
“He's also a guy that was on coach Moorhead's list,” Franklin said. “And when we sat down and met with him, right away it was obvious that not only is this a guy that I think made sense for us moving forward, but also he was really fired up about the opportunity and excited about coming back home.”
According to Pickel, the recruits have taken well to Limegrover.
“I assume that Limegrover will quickly show his worth and be deemed a quality hire by James Franklin down the road,” Pickel said. “How the class of 2017 reacts to his recruiting efforts will go a long way in giving us that answer, though.”
Franklin has infused the roster with plenty of upside, which is what the Nittany Lions needed to do to generate more offensive production. Exactly how these offensive line recruits will evolve remains to be seen, but the keys to a reversal of fortune may finally be ready to ignite s stagnant offense.