Shanley graduate McGovern steps into starting role in his third year in the NFL
As he broke the huddle on the opening drive of his first professional start, Connor McGovern glanced across the line of scrimmage and immediately grasped how difficult life as an offensive lineman in the National Football League would be.
Thirteen weeks into the 2017 season, his second in the NFL, the Fargo Shanley graduate was inserted into the Denver Broncos' starting lineup at right guard for the team's game at Miami.
Knowing he was entering a challenging situation, McGovern's nervousness only intensified before the offense's first play. Glaring at him on the opposite side of the ball was five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
"That isn't the easiest way to build your confidence," McGovern admitted.
But following an up-and-down final month of last season, McGovern, who played well enough to hold the starting right guard job, enters 2018 with a reaffirmed belief in his abilities.
"I made strides in all areas, the biggest being confidence," he said. "Just going out there and trusting my technique that I've worked on all offseason. Just going out and playing football."
Perseverance has proven to be a major asset for McGovern, who struggled to find a role in his first 20 months in the league.
A fifth-round pick in 2016, he never made it off the inactive list as a rookie. Seen as a potential starter on the interior line going into Year 2, McGovern instead spent most of training camp filling in for injured center Matt Paradis, who regained his starting role once healthy.
In the process, he lost out on needed reps, eventually finding himself backing up guards Ronald Leary and Max Garcia.
But following a season-ending back injury to Leary in late November, McGovern finally moved atop the depth chart, playing the final five weeks with mixed results.
There were highlights along the way, most notably a Week 15 game at Indianapolis, where the line keyed a season-best, 211-yard rushing performance in a 25-13 victory.
But by McGovern's own admission, he's "definitely got more work to get done," a statement echoed by football's analytical community.
For the season, Pro Football Focus rated him the No. 56 guard in the league with an overall score of negative-16.4.
And while he sees some value in such rankings, McGovern thinks they paint an incomplete picture of how the game is played in the trenches.
"Nothing against Pro Football Focus, but they don't know the reasons for our blocking schemes," he said. "Maybe they think I let up a guy but actually I was meant to do that (because) it was the running back's guy, or whatever. I don't really look at it or think about it very much."
Despite playing far from home in his post-high school career, the 2011 Shanley grad has maintained a strong, active support system.
As they have for nearly every home game dating back to his freshman year at the University of Missouri, Connor's parents, Keith and Rondi McGovern, will be in attendance Sunday, when the Broncos host Seattle in the 2018 opener.
The McGovern's, who still reside in Fargo, have also been able to travel to numerous away games, with family members living in and around NFL cities taking them in and traveling with them to Denver games.
Having planned several road trips this season, Keith is most excited for an Oct. 7 visit to New York, where he expects around 20 of Connor's relatives will be in attendance when the Broncos face the Jets.
"Our whole extended family's been very supportive of him along the way," he said. "It's been really great for all us watching him achieve his goals. It's been unreal."
Opening an NFL season as a starter for the first time, Connor's biggest goal is helping the Broncos erase the thought of last year's dismal 5-11 finish.
To make the needed strides, the offense has preached the importance of continuity, starting with an offensive line that in 2017, used 16 different combinations and allowed 52 sacks, the third highest total in the league.
The Broncos are also hoping to solidify the quarterback position for the first time since the retirement of Peyton Manning. After starting three different, ineffective signal callers a year ago, the franchise parted ways with all three and brought in veteran Case Keenum, who helped guide the Minnesota Vikings to an appearance in the 2017 NFC Championship Game.
Three years removed from a Super Bowl win, the Broncos are clearly eager to get back to playing at a championship level. Having gotten his feet wet after playing 418 snaps in 2017, McGovern believes he can be a major building block in the franchise's effort to return to the top of the NFL.
"Once that shock (of playing in the pros) goes away, you realize 'Man, I can do this.' That's sort of the biggest stepping stone," he said. And I think that's one of the biggest areas I've improved on, telling myself I belong on the field and I can do this and I can be really successful at it. Once you realize that, the little voice in your head that says 'You can't do this' disappears."