A pair of 18-year-old true freshmen will likely be making their first career starts when Penn State plays host to Minnesota this week, as the 2-2 Nittany Lions attempt to bounce back from last Saturday’s 49-10 thumping at No. 4 Michigan.
Cameron Brown, a lanky 6-foot-5, 218-pounder who is built like a wide receiver, is being called upon to bolster PSU’s injury-depleted linebacker corps. He’s been promoted to first team at the Will, or weak-side position.
Connor McGovern, a 6-5, 310-pounder who enrolled at Penn State in January, had been splitting reps at right guard with veteran Derek Dowrey. But with the Nittany Lions’ front five struggling (again), the rookie has been moved into the starting lineup.
Though PSU coach James Franklin said that the team’s official depth chart is “subject to change” as the week of practice unfolds, at this point it will only be surprising if the two promising freshmen don’t start.
The staff initially had hoped to redshirt Brown so he could add bulk and muscle to his long frame. But first he turned heads in preseason camp. Then once the season began, starting linebackers Nyeem Wartman-White, Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda were all lost to undisclosed injuries.
When PSU lost two more linebackers — Brandon Smith (targeting) and Jan Johnson (undisclosed injury) — vs. Michigan, Brown got the call.
Seeing his first positional action, he was one of the few Lion defenders who played well against the talented Wolverines (six solo stops, four assists and a tackle for loss).
“Cam went in and played as a true freshman and got people excited — had 10 tackles in the game, really in his first significant time, and right now, yeah, he's at the top of the depth chart,” Franklin said. “… Cam showed a lot to work with and showed a lot of promise. He naturally has the ability to find the ball and make plays, and we want to build on that, and I think you'll see him continue to get better each week.”
McGovern appeared to take over the right guard spot for good in the second quarter against Michigan, playing most of the rest of the game before Dowrey got some snaps in garbage time.
McGovern and redshirt freshman starting left guard Ryan Bates are being viewed as two young cornerstones for a line that fell on tough times as Penn State dealt with since invalidated sanctions stemming from the Sandusky scandal.
Again, ideally the staff would have been able to redshirt McGovern, as it is doing with talented summer enrollee Michal Menet. But the need up front was too great. Now he’ll have to learn on the fly.
“I don't think it's one specific thing with Connor,” Franklin said. “I think it's everything. I think it's his pass protection, which to be honest with you, he did not do any of in high school. I think they threw like four passes his entire high school career. They just ran behind him — didn't throw the ball much — so that was a big adjustment for him in the spring. But it's everything. It's footwork, it's technique, it's fundamentals.
“I think offensive line is one of the more technical positions on the field, and a lot of things that you could get away with in high school because you're just bigger and stronger than everybody, you're not going to get away with at this level, especially against the Big Ten opponents that we're going to play week in and week out,” the coach added. “He's improved dramatically in every area, in mentally understanding the scheme and his responsibilities and his footwork and fundamentals when it comes to pass protection in the run game. But there's still times where he looks like a true freshman playing out there.”