STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It is quite possible that the one player helping to set the tone for Penn State’s offensive line is someone who has yet to play a down in a collegiate game.
Redshirt freshman CJ Thorpe was praised last season for his work on the scout team and this spring it’s his nastiness that continues to impress the staff. So much so that Thorpe is getting under the skin of the Penn State defensive line.
“I want that mentality to spread,” James Franklin said Wednesday. “Our defense gets frustrated with him sometimes and there’s a lot of chirpiness because he plays with an edge and I don’t want to lose that. I’m going to address that to the team on Friday. Let me control that. I’ll decide when a guy has gone too far. I want us to play with that mentality and to play with that edge. I worry a little bit now that there’s people trying to take that away from him and I don’t want that.”
While Thorpe needs to continue improving his pass blocking — and Franklin said classmate Des Holmes is the opposite and needs to work on run blocking — they’re part of the blossoming depth that’s being developed up front. This is an offensive line that Franklin said at the start of spring features a two-deep that they realistically think they can play and win with. The biggest question this group needs to answer this offseason is figuring out who fills in at right guard. That’s the only spot up front that doesn’t return a starter — but the Nittany Lions also don’t lack for options.
During Michal Menet’s time at Penn State the former highly touted recruit has been limited due to injuries, but this spring has been different. Menet has worked at right guard where he’s looking to claim the starting spot and also has backed up Connor McGovern at center.
“Michal’s probably one of the guys in the program that’s improved the most in a lot of different areas, in terms of fundamentals and technique,” Franklin said. “In high school he was just such a better athlete than everybody. Technique, fundamentals and mentality, durability he’s probably had since the end of the season to now as much improvement as anybody in our program. I’m really pleased with him. He’s legitimately fighting for a starting job and getting a lot of reps with the ones right now.”
The changes up front, highlighted by a group that now doesn’t lack for experience, has been noticeable to Penn State’s defensive linemen. While Ryan Bates, Will Fries and Steven Gonzalez were thrust into action last year and McGovern slid over from guard to center, this spring there’s continuity. That’s been apparent to defensive end Ryan Buchholz who echoed the sentiment that the O-line could be a point of strength for the team this season.
“We’re improving from last year,” McGovern said this week. “Every guy is taking steps forward and I think we’ll be the leaders of the offense this year. I definitely feel like this year we’re more on the same page communication wise. We’re comfortable playing with each other and that’s going to help us progress even more.”
There’s also the competition element, which lacked in seasons past as the team struggled to even field a two- and three-deep of scholarship linemen. Now, not only are they pushing each other for spots on the depth chart but also even someone such as Thorpe is helping to make the defensive line better.
“Thankfully he hasn’t taken it over the edge with us which is good because you don’t want to hurt your own teammates, but that’s definitely what we’re looking for on Saturdays,” Buchholz said of Thorpe’s nastiness. “If we can just maintain that and go a little harder against someone else that’ll be awesome.”