Harvey Levine/FOS

McGovern: Penn State O-Line Ready To Lead The Way

The Nittany Lions' sophomore center expects big things from the front five this season.

Penn State’s 2017 offense features a pair of legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates in QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley. It features one of the nation’s top tight ends in Mike Gesicki. And it features serious depth at receiver and running back.

But in the eyes of new starting center Connor McGovern — all 6-foot-5, 313 pounds of him — the men up front have staked their collective claim as the leaders of the unit.

“We want to bring that physical aspect back,” the sophomore said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “We want to be the leading group. We don’t want Trace or Saquon or anyone else to have to lead the offense. We want to lead the offense first from up front.”

That the Nittany Lions’ offensive line is being overshadowed by the skill positions this spring is not necessarily a bad thing. 

In James Franklin’s first three years at the helm of the program, the O-line was under a microscope every offseason — for all of the wrong reasons. Years of poor recruiting at the position combined with NCAA sanctions stemming from the Sandusky scandal left the position in disarray when Franklin was hired in 2014, and there would be no quick fixes.

It took until last season for the unit to begin to make headway, as talented young linemen like McGovern (then a true freshman), and redshirt freshmen Ryan Bates and Steven Gonzalez worked their way into the starting lineup. This fall, the Lions will return six linemen with significantly starting experience.

“I think we’re gonna be one of the strong points this year on the team,” McGovern said. “We’re gonna be a lot more physical this year — bring that back.”

McGovern was asked if his frequent mentions of Penn State returning to a physical style of play meant that that sort of thing was missing last season, when the Lions went 11-3, won the Big Ten and then dropped a tight game to USC in the Rose Bowl.

“We were physical at some points last year,” he said. “But definitely this year, we want to finish blocks, get guys on the ground, make the holes bigger — give Trace and Saquon bigger holes and easier reads. Just blowing guys off the ball.”

McGovern was an early enrollee at Penn State in 2016. He arrived on campus at 310 pounds but with nearly 25 percent body fat. Everything about his body and his game has transformed since then.

Last spring, he played everywhere on the line, admitting, “I didn’t have a spot to play. Wherever they needed someone, I was getting thrown around.” He moved to guard in the preseason, and ultimately emerged as a nine-game starter on the right ride.

His first serious action came in the week four loss at Michigan, something McGovern viewed as a trial by fire.

“I came in, everything was rushing past me and everything felt like it was going 100 mph,” he said. “After that, everything just slowed down. It taught me the speed of the game.”

With senior center Brian Gaia exhausting his eligibility after the 2016 season, position coach Matt Limegrover needed a replacement in the middle of the line. A center throughout his high school career, McGovern was the obvious choice.

“He asked if I was comfortable moving back,” McGovern said. “I was completely fine with it, and we went from there.”

Making the line calls was no issue for McGovern. He had done in it back in high school and had become comfortable being vocal with his linemates as the 2016 season went along.

The shotgun snaps were new. But he was able to work on them with McSorley and backup QB Tommy Stevens throughout the offseason. By the time spring ball began, the shotgun snaps were second nature.

“It’s all coming along very well,” McGovern said.

That goes for his body, too, thanks to Penn State’s strength and nutrition programs. He now carries 313 pounds but has reduced his body fat percentage into the teens.

“I’ve put on a lot more muscle and lost a lot of fat,” he said.

Though McGovern is still only 19, he is already emerging as one of the vocal leaders of the offensive line. That much was clear Tuesday, as he smoothly answered one question after another.

Even some that were … well … a little bit out there.

At one point during the call, a reporter asked, “What do you guys have to do to keep the holes open for Barkley to get through?”

One could almost sense everyone else on the call giving a collective, “huh?”

But McGovern did not miss a beat.

“We have to be more physical and finish our blocks,” he said. “A lot of times last year, we would get the blocks but we wouldn’t sustain them. We have to sustain them and finish this year.”

In other words, it is time for the offensive line to take the lead.


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Penn State’s 2017 offense features a pair of legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates in QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley. It features one of the nation’s top tight ends in Mike Gesicki. And it features serious depth at receiver and running back.

But in the eyes of new starting center Connor McGovern — all 6-foot-5, 313 pounds of him — the men up front have staked their collective claim as the leaders of the unit.

“We want to bring that physical aspect back,” the sophomore said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “We want to be the leading group. We don’t want Trace or Saquon or anyone else to have to lead the offense. We want to lead the offense first from up front.”

That the Nittany Lions’ offensive line is being overshadowed by the skill positions this spring is not necessarily a bad thing.

In James Franklin’s first three years at the helm of the program, the O-line was under a microscope every offseason — for all of the wrong reasons. Years of poor recruiting at the position combined with NCAA sanctions stemming from the Sandusky scandal left the position in disarray when Franklin was hired in 2014, and there would be no quick fixes.

It took until last season for the unit to begin to make headway, as talented young linemen like McGovern (then a true freshman), and redshirt freshmen Ryan Bates and Steven Gonzalez worked their way into the starting lineup. This fall, the Lions will return six linemen with significantly starting experience.

“I think we’re gonna be one of the strong points this year on the team,” McGovern said. “We’re gonna be a lot more physical this year — bring that back.”

McGovern was asked if his frequent mentions of Penn State returning to a physical style of play meant that that sort of thing was missing last season, when the Lions went 11-3, won the Big Ten and then dropped a tight game to USC in the Rose Bowl.

“We were physical at some points last year,” he said. “But definitely this year, we want to finish blocks, get guys on the ground, make the holes bigger — give Trace and Saquon bigger holes and easier reads. Just blowing guys off the ball.”

McGovern was an early enrollee at Penn State in 2016. He arrived on campus at 310 pounds but with nearly 25 percent body fat. Everything about his body and his game has transformed since then.

Last spring, he played everywhere on the line, admitting, “I didn’t have a spot to play. Wherever they needed someone, I was getting thrown around.” He moved to guard in the preseason, and ultimately emerged as a nine-game starter on the right ride.

His first serious action came in the week four loss at Michigan, something McGovern viewed as a trial by fire.

“I came in, everything was rushing past me and everything felt like it was going 100 mph,” he said. “After that, everything just slowed down. It taught me the speed of the game.”

With senior center Brian Gaia exhausting his eligibility after the 2016 season, position coach Matt Limegrover needed a replacement in the middle of the line. A center throughout his high school career, McGovern was the obvious choice.

“He asked if I was comfortable moving back,” McGovern said. “I was completely fine with it, and we went from there.”

Making the line calls was no issue for McGovern. He had done in it back in high school and had become comfortable being vocal with his linemates as the 2016 season went along.

The shotgun snaps were new. But he was able to work on them with McSorley and backup QB Tommy Stevens throughout the offseason. By the time spring ball began, the shotgun snaps were second nature.

“It’s all coming along very well,” McGovern said.

That goes for his body, too, thanks to Penn State’s strength and nutrition programs. He now carries 313 pounds but has reduced his body fat percentage into the teens.

“I’ve put on a lot more muscle and lost a lot of fat,” he said.

Though McGovern is still only 19, he is already emerging as one of the vocal leaders of the offensive line. That much was clear Tuesday, as he smoothly answered one question after another.

Even some that were … well … a little bit out there.

At one point during the call, a reporter asked, “What do you guys have to do to keep the holes open for Barkley to get through?”

One could almost sense everyone else on the call giving a collective, “huh?”

But McGovern did not miss a beat.

“We have to be more physical and finish our blocks,” he said. “A lot of times last year, we would get the blocks but we wouldn’t sustain them. We have to sustain them and finish this year.”

In other words, it is time for the offensive line to take the lead.

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