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Offensive line paving way for No. 9 Penn State

The Associated Press
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Penn State coach James Franklin and his players prepare to take the field against Kent State earlier this season.

UNIVERSITY PARK — Miles Sanders always has heaped praise on the big men blocking for him, and the Penn State running back has found himself doing so more and more lately.

As No. 9 Penn State’s offensive linemen have piled up pancake blocks, Sanders (Woodland Hills) has racked up yards and touchdowns. Together, they’re powering one of the country’s most consistently explosive rushing attacks.

Tackles Ryan Bates and Will Fries, guards Connor McGovern and Steven Gonzalez and center Michael Menet have generated 200-plus rushing yards in seven straight games and are averaging 275 yards per game this year, and Penn State leads the country with 20 rushing touchdowns entering Saturday’s showdown with No. 4 Ohio State.

“There has to be trust between us and the O-line,” Sanders said. “We trust the big guys to do their jobs and they trust us to run the ball effectively. That’s been one of our main things to do this season is to run the ball way more effectively.”

That has required a complete turnaround, with coach James Franklin inheriting a roster in 2014 that was still feeling the effects of scholarship reductions imposed for the university’s role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The team lacked experienced and scholarship linemen — just one upperclassmen tackle was on scholarship when Franklin took over — and the former coaching staff was using defensive tackles to plug holes up front.

The results weren’t good.

Offensive coordinator John Donovan was fired, and offensive line coach Herb Hand left the program after Penn State ranked 120th and 106th in rushing offense and allowed 83 sacks in Franklin’s first two years.

But behind the scenes, the rebuilding effort was in full swing.

Sanders was being recruited. So were all five of the big men now paving the way for him, and all five were big gets for Franklin. Each current starter was either widely considered a four-star recruit or was among the top 10 available players in his state by major recruiting services when they committed.

“Seeing them recruiting all these top linemen, it just made me more comfortable,” Sanders said. “Obviously now, they’re growing. They’re getting better every game. They’re proving it every week.”

But even as recently as 2016, there was still apprehension about depth, considering nearly all of the program’s top offensive line recruits were being pressed into action early.

Bates started every game that year as a redshirt freshman while Gonzalez, also in his second year in the program, played in 11 games with three starts. McGovern, a true freshman, played in 13 games with nine starts.

“We’ve gained a lot of experience over the last couple of years,” Franklin said. “Besides Michael Menet, those guys have all played a lot of football for us.”

Returning linemen showed up to camp this summer with a combined 83 starts under their belts. They looked the part, passing Franklin’s eye test, each one carrying a chiseled 300-plus-pound frame. Sanders said they didn’t take long to pass a physical test, calling them a “nasty” group overall.

“I think we’re the best we’ve been in years, obviously since I’ve been here,” Bates said. “Our chemistry hasn’t been like this. Chemistry is awesome. We’re all friends. We all hang out outside of football. I think that’s what makes us connect.”

They’ve come together with a new crop of youngsters, too.

Early in camp, offensive line coach Matt Limegrover was excited that the team’s newfound depth allowed him to give vaunted recruits Juice Scruggs, Bryce Effner and Rasheed Walker more meaningful reps. He said he hopes Penn State will never be where it was in 2016 — possibly starting three freshmen in the Big Ten title game — but would feel better now if it had to.

“This is a great place to recruit to for offensive linemen,” Limegrover said. “Coach made it a priority and I’m the one that’s reaping those benefits of a lot of young guys who are really going to be pushing for time here if they aren’t already pretty quickly.”

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