Penn State football: Offensive line coming together for Nittany Lions

tjohnson@centredaily.comSeptember 18, 2013 

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Monday for his play against Central Florida on Saturday. It was the second time in three weeks Hackenberg has earned the honor.

CHRISTOPHER WEDDLE — CDT photo Buy Photo

— Adam Gress insisted the key to growing long, flowing hair is simply having the patience to get through the “awkward stage.”

It gets frizzy, unruly and oftentimes it looks unkempt before it begins to lengthen and turn down one’s shoulders. There’s an adjustment period for sure, Gress said.

It’s kind of like stepping in along an offensive line as one of three new starters.

Gress is one of three new faces along Penn State’s offensive line. He earned his first start of the season at right tackle last week against Central Florida and has split snaps at the spot with converted tackle Garry Gilliam. Center Ty Howle is the unit’s other new full-time starter.

And while Gress, Gilliam and Howle all earned playing time last season, they weren’t expected to carry loads like they have been asked to do so far this year.

Last season, Gress was in and out of the lineup and made three starts early before coming off the bench in five of the final six games. Howle tore a pectoral muscle lifting weights early in the season and missed three games before playing in the final nine and starting at left guard against Wisconsin. Gilliam played tight end before packing on weight and moving tackle in the offseason.

It’s taken a few weeks for the changes to take effect, but the Penn State offensive line — completed by returning starters Donovan Smith, Miles Dieffenbach and John Urschel — is growing more comfortable playing as a unit.

“I think that the gelling is starting to happen and we’re starting to hit our stride,” Howle said. “I think we’ve got to continue to get better though and play better.”

The improvement from Week 1 to Week 4 has been noticeable.

After struggling to push for short yardage and paving the way for just 57 rushing yards in the season opener against Syracuse, the offensive line has opened holes and led they way for three 100-yard rushers since. Both Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton ran for 108 yards against Eastern Michigan and Zach Zwinak pounded his way for 128 yards against Central Florida.

Penn State averaged just 1 1/2 yards per carry against Syracuse. The Nittany Lions are averaging six yards per carry since.

“I feel like our guys played their best game (against UCF),” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said of the offensive line. “They need to continue from there. They’re a great bunch of guys, tough. Fun group of guys to be around. (Offensive line coach) Mac (McWhorter) does a great job with them.”

The “Hogs” as McWhorter calls them, all have unique personalities and can lighten the mood on a regular basis. Dieffenbach’s sense of humor has become notorious while Howle’s sense of humor rivals that of Dieffenbach’s.

Howle has taken some ribbing for his attire — he prefers flannels with the sleeves cut off — but has a reputation on the field as one of Penn State’s nastiest players to line up against.

Gress who like Smith is one of Penn State’s most physically imposing players, is nicknamed, ‘Sasquatch.’ Urschel’s classroom exploits are well known making him one of the country’s most lauded student-athletes and he’s working on a second masters degree.

Gress, at 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, served as one of Penn State’s captains last week and has noticed a stronger approach and more polished result from his position group.

“I think all around we really came together well on our run blocking,” Gress said. “We had a lot of plays that went for a solid amount of yards and even our shorter gains were still five or six yards which is great whenever you look at it from our perspective.”

Most importantly, the Hogs, along with wideout Brandon Felder, helped take true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg under their wings when he arrived on campus midway through the summer.

“They’re all seasoned guys,” Hackenberg said. “They’ve all played through tough Big Ten schedules. ... Those are guys that I really look at. Those are the guys that really helped me from the first time I stepped foot on campus for workouts, they sort of helped me understand how everything worked and I feel like I’ve developed pretty good relationships with those guys.”

And they’ve helped keep Hackenberg healthy and on his feet through his first three starts.

With his offensive line laying down blocks in front of him, Hackenberg has completed a Big Ten best 72 percent of his passes so far. He’s been sacked seven times but he’s the first to admit some of those are his fault for holding onto the ball too long.

“They played physical. I thought we pass protected really well,” O’Brien said of Saturday’s game. “Most of those sacks aren’t on the offensive line.”

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