UNIVERSITY PARK — With four starters toting GPAs of 3.4 or higher, the offensive line can make the claim of being the brains of the Penn State football team.
The wit helps during charged situations such as when coaches remove starters in the middle of games for non-performance reasons.
The competitor in sophomore Miles Dieffenbach wants to keep playing. Instead of moping, Dieffenbach exhales.
He scans the field. He reasons. He knows the offensive line shuffling will make the Nittany Lions stronger.
“You want to stay in there and you want to do the best for your team that you can,” he said Wednesday. “You have to listen to what the coaches say because what they say is best for the team. You have to do what they say, and in the end, hopefully it’s better for the offensive line.”
In an effort to construct depth, Penn State rotated its first-team line throughout victories over Navy and Temple.
Dieffenbach starts at left guard. By all accounts, the sophomore has performed admirably in his first year as a starter.
But for two straight weeks, Dieffenbach stepped aside to allow Angelo Mangiro and Ty Howle to receive first-team work. Dieffenbach still took the majority of the snaps in both games.
The situation contrasts with last year, when offensive starters Quinn Barham, Chima Okoli, DeOn’tae Pannell, Matt Stankiewitch and Johnnie Troutman played nearly every key offensive snap.
“It’s good to catch breaks at some points in games,” Dieffenbach said. “But I think the best thing that it does is add depth to our offensive line. You never know what’s going to happen with injuries. You don’t want to have only five guys playing in games. You don’t want somebody who’s like a blind dog going in and they don’t know what they are doing.”
Penn State opened the season with Dieffenbach, Stankiewitch, John Urschel, Donovan Smith and Mike Farrell on the starting line. Smith suffered an ankle injury at Virginia, forcing him to miss the past two games. He’s expected to return Saturday when the Nittany Lions face Illinois at noon in Champaign.
Farrell moved from right to left tackle in Smith’s absence. Adam Gress has started and shared time with Eric Shrive at right tackle the past two weeks.
The 6-foot-6, 311-pound Gress said players are conditioned to play an entire game. But in his view, a few snaps to recharge isn’t a bad thing.
“Sometimes you are winded,” Gress said. “Sometimes you have a bad play and you get a quick series off for a couple of plays and it just allows you to kind of regroup and bounce back.”
The rotation, along with the return of the 6-foot-5, 316-pound Smith, has a unit that returned just one starter energized for Big Ten play. Stankiewitch, a senior center who started all 13 games last year, said the line is playing with an increased swagger.
“We have more of an attitude that we are going to come after you,” he said. “We are not going to be sitting there waiting for you to make a move.”
The group also enjoys competing off the field. At last week’s pregame meal, Dieffenbach downloaded brain teasers on his cell phone and quizzed Urschel. To his surprise, Dieffenbach stumped Urschel, a math wizard who graduated in three years.
“He didn’t get them all right last weekend against Temple,” Dieffenbach said. “We will see how he does this week.”
On the field, this week’s test is immense. Illinois’ defensive line includes Lombardi Award candidates Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence, an agile, active and forceful pair.
“It’s going to be hard to block them,” Dieffenbach said. “They are aggressive, they are strong, they are quick, they are everything you are looking for in a good defensive line. We have to stick to our guns and play aggressive, but we have to play smart and we have to know what they are doing and utilize our attributes to the best of our abilities.”
Playing smart isn’t asking too much of Penn State’s line.
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy