Rebuilt O-Line Ready to Shoulder Load

First-year starters, new position coach anxious to prove themselves for the Nittany Lion offense.

When discussing the renovation of Penn State's offensive line, it is possible to begin with positional coach Herb Hand, a Master of the Twitterverse who on his timeline dismisses ill-mannered recruits and quotes long-ago Chinese general Sun Tzu (“Opportunities multiply as they are seized”) and longtime coach Bill Curry (“You can't coach football riding around in an air-conditioned car and eating Twinkies”).

It is possible to begin with the bona fides of tackle Donovan Smith, who has made 20 career starts (compared to zero, for all other healthy offensive linemen on the roster). Or with veteran guard Miles Dieffenbach, who is hoping to ride to the rescue at some point this season, after tearing up his left knee in spring practice.

Or it is possible to begin at the left shoulder of Brian Gaia, a likely starter at guard. There is a tattoo there -- one of eight embroidered on his body, by his estimate -- and it is of Army dog tags, in honor of his late grandfather Robert (“Pap,” as the family called him). A veteran of World War II, he survived the Battle of the Bulge and was among those who liberated Nazi concentration camps.

In his later life, Brian remembered, Pap grew too emotional to complete tales of the latter experience. But when he visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. -- an easy drive from his Maryland home -- he would big-foot tour guides and inform one and all how things REALLY were.

So yes, let's begin there, with Brian Gaia. With a kid who understands duty and family and history. With the realization that military metaphors are dicey when applied to football, even tiresome. But also with the realization that it's not the worst thing to have on hand an offensive lineman who is cognizant of the world beyond the stadium walls, while at the same time knowing how crucial it is to work in concert with those on either side of him.

That, after all, is the essence of line play, and the game as a whole -- and a considerable part of its appeal. Yes, athleticism and skill have their place, but cohesion and camaraderie are paramount.

Especially this year, for this team.

Certainly everyone associated with the line realizes that. Certainly they understand just how much is riding on all their shoulders.

“I take a lot of pride in being the offensive line coach,” Hand said on Media Day in early August, “because I really consider us the most important position on the field, and it's written in the rulebook that way.”

He noted that in those pages it states quite clearly that there must be five O-linemen on the field at all times, and added that it is possible to play without a tight end or a running back or a wide receiver or even a quarterback (witness the Wildcat), but a team cannot operate without that quintet.

And never mind that there are those who wonder whether Hand will be able to unearth even that many this season.

The best guess is that Smith, the left tackle, will be joined up front by redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson on the other flank, with Gaia and fellow redshirt sophomore Derek Dowrey (both converted defensive tackles) at guard and redshirt junior Angelo Mangiro at center. Lurking in the wings are players such as guard/tackle Brendan Mahon and center/guard Wendy Laurent.

“The way that you want to approach everything is that you have something to prove, and right now we have something to prove,” Hand said. “We know that. You hope that as guys get experience and you develop and you build your program that now it shifts from where you're a perceived question mark to where you're a perceived exclamation point.”

“The way that you want to approach everything is that you have something to prove, and right now we have something to prove.”

It is not the first time Hand, a quarter-century into his career, has undertaken a reconstruction project. At Tulsa in 2007 he also had one returning starter. The left tackle was a converted defensive lineman, and the other three regulars had barely played. Yet the Golden Hurricanes averaged 41 points and 544 yards a game, and the latter figure was best in the nation.

In his present post he knows he has the raw material. Not as much as he would like, mind you, thanks to the NCAA sanctions. But some, and not all of it unfamiliar to him. When he worked under James Franklin at Vanderbilt, he tried to recruit Nelson, a Hershey native. Nelson was intrigued, if only to a point; five relatives had gone to Penn State, including his dad and sister, and he had been coming to games almost from the time he could walk.

“Basically it got to where Penn State offered him a scholarship,” Hand said, “(and) he told me to go kick rocks.”

Nelson made an immediate impression on Bill O'Brien as a freshman last year; more than once the departed head coach sang his praises, unbidden, during interviews. Nelson admits that left him chomping at the bit, that he was eager to play -- that that was in fact the plan early on. But he tweaked his left knee in preseason camp, and it was decided that he should redshirt.

Then he injured the same knee in spring practice, knocking him back even further. “I kind of struggled with that,” he said, “because I feel like I hadn't even got a chance to play yet, and I was already having to deal with something.”

He took mental reps. He spent time in the film room, familiarizing himself with Vanderbilt's old offense. And he watched the clock tick. “Now that I haven't played football for a while,” he said, “I am excited to get back out there.”

Like Gaia, Dowrey was out there last year, as a defensive lineman in short-yardage situations. He was moved to guard before spring drills began, and found himself feeling like a stranger in a strange land.

“Just everything is a little different,” he said.

The mentality is different, certainly. Defensive linemen attack -- first, last and always. Offensive linemen road-grade at times, lay back at others. And there are small things, like one's stance. Who knew hand placement and weight distribution would be such a big deal? That it would matter how one charges out of said stance?

“Little things like that, that don't seem like a big deal, actually are a big deal,” Dowrey said.

It's not like he isn't adaptable. Besides serving as a two-way lineman at his high school in Winchester, Va., he was asked to play fullback the second half of his senior year, when the team was in a pinch. He knew the offense already; when he switched, he said, “I just kind of went back there and tried to be an athlete.”

Nor is he afraid to challenge himself. He has decided to major in broadcast journalism, having discovered that he liked video production after taking a class in it in high school, and believing that it will dovetail nicely with his interest in sports.

But his on-field challenge might be the greatest of all, even though he played on the O-line throughout high school. “High school offensive-line play is completely different than college,” he said, “so even what I was used to wasn't enough. I had to get used to playing on this stage.”

Gaia moved to offense after Dieffenbach was injured early in spring drills, and the initial returns weren't promising. “A couple plays, I might not have blocked anyone,” he said. “I didn't know what was going on.”

He remembers being undressed by Lions defensive tackle Anthony Zettel in his first practice. He remembers pass blocking being a particular mystery. But he also remembers Hand never losing faith in him, and that Dieffenbach and Mangiro were forever reaching out, forever offering pointers.

As Hand said, Dowrey and Gaia were “almost like balls of clay,” capable of being molded to his liking. There were no bad habits to unlearn; it was just a matter of time, and repetition.

Things began to fall into place for Gaia during a mid-spring scrimmage in Holuba Hall, and he never looked back. At the Blue-White Game he was presented the Red Worrell Award, given each year to the most improved offensive player.

“Come the end of spring ball, I felt the whole unit melded together,” he said, “even with all the injuries.”

More is needed now, though.

“I think we're going to be a really good unit,” Gaia said.

“I've always felt, even when I was a defensive player, that the offensive line is so crucial to the offense,” Dowrey said. “Just because everybody else is saying it doesn't change anything for me. I've always felt that way.”

Now it's just a matter of proving they can shoulder the load.

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