STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State left tackle Donovan Smith already knows what this article is going to say.
Clips and columns about Penn State’s offensive line have revolved around a central theme the last five months: This unit likely isn’t going to be any good. Smith can’t escape all that chatter. With every compliment thrown Christian Hackenberg ’s way, there’s another question mark tossed at the offensive line.
Hackenberg can be great … but will he have enough time to pass? Penn State returns two experienced tailbacks … but does that matter if this line can’t generate any push? A lot of the criticism seems deserved, or at least understandable. Only Smith returns as a starter on the line, and two converted defensive tackles might very well start at guard in time for the opener. That’s not exactly cause for a confidence boost.
“A lot of people hear it, but we use it as motivation,” Smith said, adding some of his teammates keep the negative articles taped to their lockers or saved to their phones. “They read them daily or at night, or stuff like that. We’re just going to use it as motivation and push on from there.”
That doesn’t mean players here are scouring ESPN or the local news sites for bulletin-board material. Far from it. But they don’t have to go very far to hear those doubts. It’s on Facebook and Twitter; it’s talked about on campus and in classrooms. It’s been an unwanted storyline that’s hovered since news broke in March that Miles Dieffenbach, the Nittany Lions’ most experienced lineman, suffered what could be a season-ending injury.
Depth is obviously an ongoing issue during these years under scholarship limits because of NCAA sanctions. It's created a huge concern on an offensive line that returns just three scholarship athletes with OL game experience. And no unit is reminded of it more often.
“It’s hard to ignore,” said redshirt junior Angelo Mangiro, who played in every game last season but never started. “It’s sticking in. I don’t go digging my nose in it and looking for it. But it’s hard to avoid, so you definitely remember it.
“It’s sticking with me, and it’s sticking with the rest of the guys. So we have something to come out and prove.”
Offensive line coach Herb Hand stood near his thinned-out unit last week and wore a permanent smile. He didn’t look like a man whose line features just two healthy upperclassmen, four sophomores and 13 freshmen (including redshirts and walk-ons). He insisted he felt no pressure and quoted NFL coaching great Chuck Noll: “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Hand, who was a candidate to become Vanderbilt’s head coach, does know – and has been a beacon of positivity for these Lions. Often in the spring, he pulled aside the converted defensive tackles -- Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia – and offered encouragement and advice on pass protection. Gaia still remembers those first few days, of confusion and sometimes blocking no one during an inevitable sack play. But Gaia caught on in about a week and a half; he was then holding his own against pass-rush specialist Anthony Zettel. Gaia won an award in the spring as the offense’s most improved player.
Players have thrown a lot of praise Hand’s way. But, then again, if there’s one answer to all these question marks, it might come from Hand, since he faced an identical situation in the past. Back in 2007, before his hair shifted to gray, during his first year at Tulsa, Hand’s offensive line had just one regular returning starter. He even moved a defensive tackle over to offense. The result?
“We led the nation in offense that year, in 2007,” he said. “It’s a whole different animal in the Big Ten, obviously, but this is not something new. I’ve done it before. There’s a lot of growth that needs to take place and a lot of learning. But if you have guys that will work hard, that have great attitudes and bring a tremendous work ethic … you can accomplish great things.”
The situation at offensive line was never quite this dire before at Penn State, but there is still some precedent at the school as well. The 2006 squad also returned just one starter, left tackle Levi Brown, but still fared OK and helped the team finish 9-4 with an Outback Bowl victory. Four of the linemen on that team – Brown, Gerald Cadogan, Rich Ohrnberger and A.Q. Shipley – went on to earn All-B1G honors during their careers, and three were drafted into the NFL.
But this is a different line, and the future of this unit remains unknown. There are question marks – big question marks -- and, precedents or not, there will undoubtedly be more columns and stories wondering aloud just how this unit will fare. But Smith, Mangiro and the rest of the current linemen already know what the clips are going to say. And they’re hoping to prove them all wrong starting Aug. 30.
“It is what it is,” Smith said. “They talk about you good, bad – and we’re up for the challenge.”