James Franklin faced a lot of challenges when he took over in 2014 as Penn State's head football coach, but none bigger than trying to rebuild an offensive line that had a severe numbers problem.
Between NCAA sanctions that continued to limit the Nittany Lions' scholarships, and the time needed to develop enough large young men to deal with the rigors of physical play in the Big Ten, he knew it would take more than a few years to get it right.
However, in Year 5 of Franklin's tenure, the process seems to have reached a peak. Or as center Connor McGovern puts it, "I think this year will be the year of the offensive line.
"We're improving from last year," said McGovern, a 6-foot-5, 320-pound junior. "Every day we take steps forward. I think we'll be the leaders of the offense this year. A lot of younger guys are stepping up. There's more competition throughout the line. They're pushing the guys in front of them to compete and do their best every day."
Redshirt sophomore tackle Will Fries, who started the last nine games last year, said familiarity and communication among the linemen have helped, along with added confidence.
"I think we're playing with more of an edge, with a chip on our shoulder," he said, "just trying to be more physical and wear defenses down. We're just bringing a mind-set to practice every day, that we're going to be the strength of this team and dominate the guys in front of us."
The offensive line will be on display Saturday when the Lions wrap up spring practice with the annual Blue-White Game at Beaver Stadium. Given the intense competition this spring, the question is: Which five linemen will start?
Four starters return from the offensive line that began the Fiesta Bowl: McGovern, Fries, tackle Chasz Wright and guard Steven Gonzalez. There's also tackle Ryan Bates, an Archbishop Wood product who is tied with McGovern for most career starts among active linemen on the team with 22, plus other young players who allow Penn State to have a full first and second team without including any true freshmen.
Bates said no one knows the identities of the five linemen that offensive line coach Matt Limegrover will put out on the field Saturday.
"I think this offensive line is one of the most experienced offensive lines we've had since I've been here, but I don't know what five are going to be on the field yet," he said. "Coach Limegrover is going to find those five. We're going to see who starts in the spring game, move on to summer and then fall camp, and we're going to compete with each other and see who the best five are."
Besides the five linemen already mentioned, Franklin is enthusiastic about three young players – redshirt sophomore guard Michal Menet and a pair of redshirt freshmen, tackles C.J. Thorpe and Des Holmes, a graduate of Cardinal O'Hara.
Franklin said that since the end of last season, Menet "probably has shown as much improvement as anybody in our program." While Thorpe and Holmes need to be equally proficient at run and pass blocking, he said Thorpe "is maybe our best guy in the run game" and Holmes is very good with pass protection.
Franklin said Thorpe also brings an attitude that he'd like others on the line to emulate.