Before we continue, let’s make two things perfectly clear about depth charts:
1.) They should be taken with a grain of salt.
2.) Coaches manipulate them for their own benefit, or in one case (Harbaugh, of course), doesn’t release them at all. Because, after all, where does the competitive advantage lie in telling your opposition exactly who is available to play and where?
That being said, Penn State has not traditionally been a program that manipulates or hides much on its depth chart. Not intentionally anyway. Sure, the policy seems to be to stick with the players who played last week who are going to be available in the coming game. The trick is usually to figure out which players who didn’t play in the last week are available to play in the upcoming game (Penn State didn’t give Ohio State the advantage of knowing Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell, who had missed most of the season, were going to be 100 percent for their game, for example). But as a general practice, Penn State has stuck by this. If you played the week before and can play the upcoming game, you’re going to be on the depth chart.
I say all of that so I can mention this: Connor McGovern is on Penn State’s depth chart for the Rutgers game.
Which is more significant because of this fact: Paris Palmer is not on Penn State’s depth chart for the Rutgers game.
Penn State’s biggest issue this week is at tackle, but let’s make this much clear: The Nittany Lions could really use a healthy McGovern. That does solve some issues.
To explain why, here is the starting offensive line for Penn State, as listed on the depth chart:
LT – Ryan Bates
LG – Steven Gonzalez
C – Brian Gaia
RG – Connor McGovern
RT – Chasz Wright
In this scenario: If you have McGovern, you also have an experienced backup guard (senior Derek Dowery). If you have an experienced backup guard, you can go a week or two (or a month and a half, as it may be) with Bates at left tackle. If you can start Bates at left tackle, you can use the big and talented but still extremely raw Sterling Jenkins as a backup. If you can use Jenkins as a backup, you don’t have to burn true freshman Will Fries’ redshirt.
With McGovern out, you get dangerously close to a depth shortage at guard if Bates is at tackle an extended period. James Franklin’s and Matt Limegrover’s only backup guard with any experience in this scenario is Wendy Laurent, who is also the backup center And judging by the depth chart, the player in line after Laurent is true freshman Michal Menet.
As it stands at tackle, at least Penn State can throw Jenkins or sophomore Brendan Brosnan (who is listed as the backup right tackle) on the field before Fries. Without McGovern for an extended period, Menet might have actually been closer to being in an “absolutely needed” situation than Fries.
Look, we don’t know now what Penn State’s offensive line will look like Saturday night, no matter what the depth chart indicates. McGovern being listed doesn’t mean he will play, just like Palmer not being listed means he won’t, or, say, Brendan Mahon not being listed means anything at all, really. We really might not know what Penn State is dealing with until Saturday, even though head coach James Franklin speaks to the media on Tuesday. But we do know the tendencies when it comes to the depth chart. We do know the history.
And we do know Penn State doesn’t want to burn those redshirts. It shouldn’t want to burn those redshirts. That’s your future up front if you’re Penn State, and it’s looking like a great future. No matter how unthinkable this turnaround has been for Penn State, no matter how close the Nittany Lions are to a 10-win season, and no matter how likely it now seems that a 10-win season will get Penn State into the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 3 at Lucas Oil Field, this is still a program on the outside looking in right now. This is not a destiny the Nittany Lions control. Michigan does, and you have to wonder whether that should factor into any decision made on a beaten, battered and bruised offensive line. Is losing a full year’s worth of Will Fries or Michal Menet worth losing just yet, for the chance something really huge can happen in the present?
The availability of Connor McGovern might help coaches push that extremely difficult decision off a week or so. And at this point, the further you can get into the season with what you have, the better. Because if Fries or Menet have to play, it has to also be worth replacing them in 2020.