STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State’s offensive linemen have been ridiculed for two years, and their position coach left them for a school that won two games in the SEC last season.
Matt Limegrover spent 16 years as a trusted sidekick for former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill at three stops, before Kill’s health forced him to step down midseason and another lieutenant forced Limegrover to look for another employer after it was over.
So two jilted parties, looking to move beyond the recent past, have come together to forge something new. For a group of players so connected to negativity, Limegrover’s positive approach has created an instant bond.
“I think Coach Limegrover has taught me more about what’s it like on the field and in life to just constantly be positive and constantly have a great outlook than he has even teaching me about football,” Penn State tackle Andrew Nelson said. “I think he has really picked up the positive energy in the offensive line room, and for that I’m very grateful.”
The Nittany Lions cannot hide from the numbers. Penn State’s offense allowed 83 sacks during the past two seasons, ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in plenty of categories and let down a strong defense on numerous occasions.
Enter Limegrover, who had several job titles at Minnesota. He was an assistant head coach, an offensive coordinator and an offensive line coach. After Kill’s replacement, Tracy Claeys, decided the Gophers’ offense needed a new direction, Penn State quickly snapped up the veteran coach to replace Herb Hand, who had departed for Auburn.
Limegrover has one official title at Penn State, offensive line coach, but his challenge involves a bit of psychiatry. It also requires strong organizational skills, because there are plenty of interchangeable parts on his new offensive line.
Nelson spent spring practice at left tackle, but he has been working at right tackle during fall camp. Brendan Mahon was an interior lineman, but he’s been working at left tackle. Brian Gaia has played at guard, but he appears to be locked in as the starting center.
“It’s interesting. It’s kind of like hockey lines. You look to see who works well together and how it all fits together,” Limegrover said. “The thing you don’t want to do is put out a de facto starting group and have other guys say, ‘Aw, well, I guess that’s how it is going to be.’ The biggest thing we have going on right now is great competition. You want that competition for as long as possible.”
Penn State’s talent pool at the position was once very young and very shallow. There is far more experience after two painful years, and enough depth for the competition Limegrover craves.
It’s not just a transition at position coach for the offensive line. There is also a new offensive coordinator, and a new system to implement. Joe Moorhead wants Penn State to spread the field and play at a faster pace – faster than these players have gone in recent seasons and faster than Limegrover is accustomed to as well.
That is something the coach and his players have had to adjust to together, and provided more insight into the culture Limegrover wants to establish.
“You look at the offensive systems that Coach Limegrover ran before and it was very different from what we’re doing now,” Nelson said. “For the fact that he has jumped right in and bought in and every day he’s saying, ‘Man, this offense is awesome, guys. I’m telling you, if we can give this back a chance or protect this, we’re going to have a chance to be a great offense.’ He’s really bought in, and I think he’s doing a great job with that.”
Limegrover spent so much time working for Kill, moving from Southern Illinois to Northern Illinois to Minnesota, there had to be a comfort level established that was undoubtedly shaken when Claeys dismissed him. There are plenty of reasons to see his move to Penn State as a solid career choice. Not only is Limegrover from western Pennsylvania and admittedly a Penn State fan growing up, but there was an obvious connection on the staff. He and Moorhead, who was hired about a month before him, grew up in the same area near Pittsburgh. Moorhead’s father was his first youth football coach.
This is an opportunity for Limegrover to move on from a disappointing end at Minnesota. He has a chance to help a group of players move past a couple of downtrodden seasons.
Seems like a perfect match.
“This staff has been unbelievable,” Limegrover said. “I was 24 hours on the job, I flew to Florida to meet up with [wide receiver coach] Josh Gattis, and you would have thought that Josh and I grew up in the same neighborhood. He welcomed me, threw me in the car and we went recruiting. I get back, I go with those guys to get ready for spring ball and, honestly, it feels like I’ve been with these guys 17 years. I’m excited to be here. This is where I want to be. This is where I feel I was meant to be.”