UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -
Penn State's offensive line wants to establish itself as a physical, cohesive
unit by the end of spring drills on April 20.
Through five of the 15 allotted spring practices, senior center Ty Howle said the Nittany Lions are well on their way to becoming the type of group necessary to lead the offense in 2013.
"I think we have improved tremendously since the start of spring ball, particularly in the timing of everything," Howle said. "Everybody knows a whole lot more just in five practices. All of the timing has been the biggest factor. With a new group, timing is always important, and we are getting things down."
The big key for the 2013 Nittany Lion offensive line is experience. Howle, along with guards John Urschel and Miles Dieffenbach and tackles Donovan Smith and Adam Gress have all played a lot of football and started in games. Additionally, tight end Garry Gilliam brings game experience to the offensive line after shifting from tight end to tackle.
"It helps us that a lot of guys have played," Howle said. "It helps with the group being able to function as a unit together. On the offensive line, that's what it is all about, being able to function as one cohesive unit to get all of the steps together at the same time. I think that experience factor has a lot to do with it."
Familiarity is a significant factor to the offseason growth for Howle, a Wake Forest, N.C. native, and the rest of the offensive line. The Lions are much more comfortable in their roles on the field and how to execute in Coach O'Brien's offense.
"We are all way more knowledgeable about the offense," said Howle. "We know the formations by what is being called. We know what we are likely to see as far as what defenses are going to show. We are able to pick up on blitz tips and things like that. Also, working in the weight room, we are much stronger than we have ever been. We have more stamina, and that plays a huge part, as well."
Howle, who has been the primary backup behind First Team All-Big Ten center Matt Stankiewitch for the past two seasons, started in the 2012 season finale against Wisconsin at left guard and saw action in a total of nine games last season (Missed the first three weeks while recovering from a torn pectoral muscle injury). With the opening at center following Stankiewitch's graduation, Howle has moved into the starting role.
As a center, Howle is the general of the offensive line. He is responsible for reading the defenses as the team breaks the huddle and prepares for each snap.
"It's important for me to know what everyone along the offensive line is doing," Howle said. "When we come up to the line, you have to spot the defenses and call them out. The coaches do a great job preparing you because these are things you work from the end of the regular season until now so that we are able to execute it. Because of how much work you put in off the field, it hasn't been that tough of a transition."
Howle's off-the-field improvement is not just focused on progress in the film room. Across the board, the Nittany Lions made significant strides in the weight room during the offseason. Having spent a full year under the direction of strength coach Craig Fitzgerald and his staff's conditioning program, Howle said the group feels big gains on the field this spring.
"Across the offensive line, our squats have all improved," said Howle. "And then working with power cleans, that explosion is critical. Coach McWhorter talks a lot about being able to 'snap' off of the ball, and that is something we have definitely improved in. Our explosiveness and strength have both definitely gotten a whole lot better."
From top to bottom, the offensive line improved its times in the 40-yard dash and shuttle run, in addition to the squat numbers and power clean figures. The strength and conditioning gains, along with experience and knowledge of the offense has Howle excited for what lies ahead in 2013 for the Nittany Lion offensive line.
"I think everyone is progressing," Howle said. "Guys like John Urschel and Miles (Dieffenbach) have played a full season in the offense. They are playing well (this spring). Physically, all of the gains in the weight room are showing up out on the field. Garry (Gilliam) is picking up the offense after moving from tight end. That move is not too much of a difference because a tight end does a lot of the same things a tackle does. So Garry knew all of the blocking schemes, and the same is true for Donovan (Smith) and (Adam) Gress. Mentally, we are all picking up more than we did last year when we came in with a completely blank slate. It has been a big improvement."
Visually, the offensive line has been a physical group during spring practice thus far. The unit wants to be aggressive and throw the first punch on every snap.
"We don't want to wait around and let them hit us. We want to go out there and attack," Howle said. "That's the mindset. Coach McWhorter has a sheet we look at every day that says, 'Physical is a Way of Life'. That's what we are trying to do. We want to be physical at all times."
There is still a long way to go between now and week one of the 2013 season, but Howle is happy with the progress the Nittany Lions have made on offense. Now, the goal is to continue building a camaraderie amongst the entire group to build a cohesive unit by the time Aug. 31 rolls around.
"Working as one is the key to a successful offense," Howle said. "You try to have everyone do everything perfectly on every play. That's the ideal situation. Obviously, it's never going to happen on every single play. But as close as you can get to that is what we are working towards."
The Nittany Lions have a few days off before returning to the practice field on Monday to kickoff the remaining three weeks of spring practice.
"We get a little break here with a few days off. We are a third of the way done, and we are looking forward to the next 10 practices, for sure," Howle said.
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