Since replacing Herb Hand after the 2015 season, Matt Limegrover has drawn rave reviews from coaches and players alike. He came in and stabilized an offensive line that had some serious consistency issues before his arrival. But now, entering into his fourth season in Happy Valley, the time has come for his unit to become one of the conference's elite.
The end of the 2018 season also marked the end of Ryan Bates and Connor McGovern in Happy Valley, taking a combined 57 starts in three years out the door with them. Despite this fact, 2019 is a monster year for Matt Limegrover and his offensive line to produce at a level they have yet to produce at during his tenure on staff.
Fair? Up for debate.
Possible? Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, absolutely.
While Bates and McGovern were stabilizing, veteran presences on a line that has been through multiple iterations in the past three seasons, they were never quite the ones to elevate it to new heights. So while the group will miss their experience, the upside of the projected starting-five in 2019 is loftier than it's been in recent years. And for Matt Limegrover, that's a great sign.
As mentioned at the top, praise for Limegrover and the work he's done since arriving in Happy Valley is not lacking. The coaches seem to love coaching with him, the players seem to love playing for him, and recruits have been buying into what he's selling. But after a season that ended on a sour note, James Franklin's Nittany Lion program all of a sudden has plenty to prove in 2019 in order to show that the successes of 2016 and 2017 were more than just Joe Moorhead-engineered flashes in the pan. Whether or not they will be able to do so will largely depend on Limegrover's offensive line.
So as we seek out where the line can improve, let's start with the obvious–redshirt freshman Rasheed Walker and CJ Thorpe/Mike Miranda at right guard, better known as the replacements for Bates and McGovern. How much room is there for improvement at those spots and how capable are the new starters of making those improvements?
Rasheed Walker came to Penn State as a blue-chip, four-star prospect. The only offensive line recruit to enroll recently at Penn State with a higher recruiting ranking than Walker was starting center Michal Menet in 2016. To find the next lineman ranked higher than Walker, one needs to go all the way back to Eric Shrive in the 2009 class. Needless to say, Walker's natural talent is rather unique in the recent landscape of Penn State football.
But talent and star rankings are only a very small part of the equation. The real question is how well he's able to adapt to the college game and translate his skills to the field. While that question will be impossible to answer for sure until the opening kick, fans have been listening to Franklin and his staff consistently praise Walker for over a year now, and the fact that he has been considered the front-runner for the starting role from the second Bates declared for the draft, is rather meaningful. How often has Franklin spoken so highly of a young lineman? Plus, a little bit of video-documented validation is never a bad thing.
Rasheed Walker, making a bid to be a starter at LT, doing a good job here against one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten, Yetur Gross-Matos pic.twitter.com/5fha3z9hsX— Dave Revsine (@BTNDaveRevsine) August 10, 2019
The athleticism that Walker is bringing to the position is a huge reason why there's confidence around this new alignment, and athleticism is exactly what the calling card is for the new starting duo at the right guard spot.
CJ Thorpe and Mike Miranda are different types of players than McGovern. Where McGovern was seemingly most comfortable in pass protection (which would explain why his time spent at center and right tackle always seemed to stand out a bit more) Thorpe and Miranda live to run block. It will take some time for them to be as consistent with bottling up the interior rush, but they are more than ready to flatten multiple defenders in their path en route to clearing out a rushing lane. These two live to bury the opposition, and both will have roles to play this fall.
Of course, there's also the expected growth from left guard Steven Gonzalez, Menet at center, and Will Fries at right tackle, those three are far more predictable at this point and fans should feel fairly secure in the knowledge that they are all capable of providing all-conference performances while having floors as very good players.
So where exactly does the group needs to improve? A quick look at S&P+ can tell us. The following tables show where Penn State ranked among the rest of the country in each category.
|Year||Adjusted Line Yards||STandard Down Line Yards/Carry||Passing Down Line Yards/Carry||Opportunity Rate||Power Success Rate||Stuff Rate|
|Year||Adjusted Sack Rate||Standard Down Sack Rate||Passing Down Sack Rate|
Without diving too deeply into the exact meaning of each statistic on the charts (you can do that here), the basic takeaway can be summarized as follows: while the line has made great strides during Limegrover's tenure towards becoming a more generally successful and efficient group overall, they've also alarmingly regressed in terms of allowing pressure on their quarterback.
There are some obvious caveats to this, the big one being that Trace McSorley was hurt for half of the 2018 season, affecting the number of sacks allowed. But even despite that fact, the trends are clear in the data that while the line has improved in some areas, they've badly regressed in others.
Herein lies the true challenge for Limegrover. How does he recapture the success that his line experienced as far as limiting sacks and pressures, while still continuing the trend of improved consistency and improved run game opportunities, all while breaking in new starters?
How the Pittsburgh-native answers this question will not only be key for the upcoming season, but for his future in Happy Valley. Should the Lions experience another season falling short of expectations, there will be increased pressure for Franklin to shake things up on the offensive staff, with coordinator Ricky Rahne and Limegrover as the most likely scapegoats. Ja'Juan Seider has proven so invaluable as a recruiter and coach that he will only leave on his own accord. Tyler Bowen is widely regarded as a rising star and is in the same boat as Seider. Gerad Parker just arrived on campus and barring a repeat performance of 2018 from the receivers, will be given at least two years to prove himself. That, unfortunately, leaves Limegrover as a prime target should things go poorly.
With that in mind, let's revisit the very first question we asked at the top–is it fair that Limegrover and the offensive line will be required to improve in 2019 despite losing two multi-year starters? No, it's not. But despite what Harvey Dent's Two-Face will tell you, life's not always fair.