To say Penn State's had some issues on the offensive line the past few years is like saying Dave Joyner took his time in hiring Bill O'Brien. It's technically correct, but could use another order of magnitude to properly underscore the point.
Of all the criticisms Penn State fans had with the previous staff, its handling of the offensive line would rank high on the list of gripes. From separating the unit into interior and exterior linemen--with a separate coach for each--to a strength and conditioning regime that rarely seemed to develop players, the list of complaints goes on and on. And as for the on-field performance, well, there was a reason that image of a scarecrow, traffic cone, and banana peel came to perfectly symbolize the OL.
But the promise of O'Brien and crew is the promise of a vastly improved unit. Gone are two separate coaches and a seeming lack of communication between them, and in comes Mac McWhorter, a former national champion considered one of the best in the business. Gone is John Thomas and his HIT method, and in comes Craig Fitzgerald, who might well be completely freaking insane, but, like, in a good way. And, we all hope, gone is the consistent underachievement, and in comes a solid unit. That's easier said than done, though, following the graduation of all the 2011 starters but center Matt Stankiewitch.
|More Blue-White Countdown 2012…|
|Special Teams (Mike) - 4.9.12|
|Defensive Backfield (Cari) - 4.10.12|
|Linebackers (Mike) - 4.11.12|
|Defensive Line (Jared) - 4.12.12|
|Offensive Line (Devon) - 4.13.12|
|Wide Receivers (Jeff) - 4.17.12|
|Tight Ends (Jeff) - 4.16.12|
|Running Backs (Mike) - 4.18.12|
|Quarterbacks (Kyle) - 4.19.12|
There's been much competition for the guard spots throughout the spring practice period, but, by all accounts, Gress and Farrell have held on to the starting jobs they seemed in line to inherit. Farrell brings plenty of experience to the unit--he saw time in all but three games last year, and in 2010 started in place of an injured Chima Okoli when the Lions played Indiana in Fedex Field. He's undersized, at just 276 pounds, but has held his own when called upon in the past.
Gress, on the other hand, hasn't seen the field much, but might be the first real success story of the Craig Fitzgerald regime. He was specifically cited by Bill O'Brien during his press conference as a player who had a great winter workout, and has reportedly excelled to the point of earning the left tackle position. Whether he can impress in games as much as he has on the practice field remains to be seen, but in less than a week, we'll all be able to judge for ourselves.
Projected Starters: John Urschel (RS JR) and Miles Dieffenbach (RS SO)
Coming into camp, John Urschel seemed locked into one guard position. He didn't start a game last year, but frequently subbed in when Johnnie Troutman or DeOn'tae Pannell struggled, and, like Farrell, started that Indiana game in 2010 following a Doug Klopacz injury. The only question is whether a starting job will take anything away from his studies: Urschel boasts a 4.0 GPA, and is a math major. He can probably solve for the value of all the Xs and the Os.
The opposite guard position has been one in flux. Mark Arcidiacono was projected to fill that spot, but hurt his foot and has missed the entire spring. In his place, Miles Dieffenbach has come all the way up from being the scout team center to a first team guard--as was confirmed at Friday's open practice, when he slotted in with the starting offense. Dieffenbach has never seen game action with the Nittany Lions.
Size may be an issue for these two, who check in at 287 and 286 pounds, respectively.
Incoming Freshmen: Wendy Laurent (FR), Anthony Stanko (FR)
Projected Starter: Matt Stankiewitch (SR)
As mentioned above, Stankiewitch is the only returning starter along the line, but he does join Urschel and Farrell as the third academic All-Big Ten selection in the unit. If this squad can't outmuscle its opponents, it certainly ought to be able to outsmart them. He was solid if unspectacular at center last year, taking over for the excellent Stefen Wisniewski. But as the new anchor of this offensive line, Stank is going to be expected to take a real leadership position, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he earned the "C." He'll hope that a new offensive line gels quickly as a result of the increased unity, now that they're operating as one unit rather than two.
Next in line: Ty Howle (RS SO)
Stay tuned tomorrow, when Jeff takes a look at the wide receivers.