Spring Practice Central
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lions entered the 2014 spring practice period with just two players on the offensive line with starting experience.
And when senior Miles Dieffenbach suffered a knee injury during spring ball, the Lions were left with just one returning starter - Donovan Smith.
What a difference a year has made for the Penn State O-Line with senior center Angelo Mangiro headlining a group that now features a host of returning players with significant game and starting experience.
With experience comes confidence, and the Nittany Lions have taken a step forward in the trenches since the end of the 2014 season.
"We've done some really nice things this spring, and certainly we have some things to work on, but comparing this year to last year, it's really not close with how far we have come," said senior Angelo Mangiro. "We have more guys who are veterans now. They are more confident making their calls and doing the technical things we need to do."
You can't really put a value on what the game reps meant to the unit's collective growth. It was trial by fire with four of the five starters during the vast majority of last season seeing things for the first time during plays in games. Now, things have slowed down.
"One of the biggest things for offensive line play is getting those on-field reps," tackle Andrew Nelson said. "Getting on the field in games and playing in every rep was huge, not only for me, but a lot of guys. Those reps were huge to get a feel for the speed of the game, making calls, so that experience helped all of us grow tremendously."
No unit worked harder during the winter conditioning period than the offensive line. To a man, each player in the group made strides in strength, flexibility, speed and quickness. Coupling the physical growth with the game experience, Penn State's offense has executed at a higher level this spring because of the unit that makes up more than 45 percent of the entire offense.
"They just have to take kind of a lunch-pail mentality and come to work every single day and grind through it. But overall, I'm really pleased," said head coach James Franklin. "And I told them, they may not see it and even the individual coaches may not see it but I do. Looking at it from 50,000 feet and watching all the drills and all the competition, I'm just so impressed."
In all, six players return to the unit with starting experience, including Derek Dowrey (guard/center), Brian Gaia (guard/center), Wendy Laurent (center/guard), Brendan Mahon (guard/center), Mangiro (center/guard) and Nelson (tackle). Additionally, tackle Albert Hall saw action in 12 games last season, and the Nittany Lions add a host of redshirt freshman to the rotation and newcomers Paris Palmer and Sterling Jenkins.
The experience on the field and growth this spring has the group optimistic with the direction things are headed.
"When we are playing confident and doing the things we need to do, the offense moves," said Mangiro. "We understand that. We are willing to put that on our shoulders.
The offensive line's growth has not gone unnoticed by the players around the unit. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg has taken note of the command the line is playing with when it approaches the line of scrimmage during pre-snap reads. Running back Akeel Lynch has also been a direct beneficiary of an improved group up front.
"I think with the offensive line, the big thing is communication," running back Akeel Lynch said. "They are more confident in what they are doing. When it comes to pass protection, they are communicating with me and I'm communicating with them. When you are playing for the first time and learning the offense, it's hard to pick things up as quickly. Obviously, with this being the second year, they are able to communicate a lot faster, which helps with the running game be more productive and helps with pass protection."
With the experience alone, the offensive line is not the same unit it was in 2014. After a slew of underclassmen players received invaluable game reps, and with only one senior (Mangiro) in the group, the Nittany Lions have a lot to build on and look forward to as the offensive line continues to evolve.
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