UNIVERSITY PARK — At 20 years of age, Donovan Smith is hardly an old guy.
But compared to his teammates along Penn State’s offensive line, the junior defensive tackle is as grizzled a veteran as they come. Smith has spent this spring not only helping bring his teammates up to speed, but also realizing how crucial his experience protecting quarterbacks has been and will be in the upcoming season.
With senior Miles Dieffenbach out with a knee injury, Smith is the team’s lone returning starter on the offensive front. He’s been the team’s primary left tackle the last two seasons and will line up with a host of new faces in Saturday’s Blue-White game.
“I’m personally pleased with their progress in the spring and how far they’ve come,” Smith said. “Talking to them in terms of little tricks of the trade on how you read a defender or how you notice an inside move or what they’re going to do and vice versa. Just how to handle game situations and taking blitzes that come at you.”
Penn State’s policy is not to release injury reports but the Centre Daily Times and other media outlets have confirmed Dieffenbach’s injury as potentially season-ending. He’s not the only the Penn State lineman to go down this spring.
The Nittany Lions have been left with just 10 offensive linemen for most of spring ball. Fellow tackle Andrew Nelson has been out with an unspecified ailment while center Angelo Mangiro has also missed time this spring. Guard Anthony Alosi has been away from practice and is facing an assault charge.
Both Mangiro and Alosi have playing experience as backups.
Smith has played in 22 games with 20 starts over the last two seasons and will line up next to a handful of newcomers on Saturday. Guards Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia switched from defensive tackle to the offensive line a week before spring practice to augment Penn State’s depth up front.
So far the two former defenders have fit in nicely, Penn State coach James Franklin said.
“It’s a tough situation that they’ve been put in,” Franklin said. “They’ve handled it well. Gaia was recruited heavily out of high school as a possible offensive lineman and I think people have been talking to Dowrey for a long time about the transition.”
Dowrey came into spring practice at 6-foot-3 and 303 pounds while Gaia is listed at 6-foot-3, 280. They join redshirt freshman Brendan Mahon (6-foot-4, 305) as players who will likely see a heavy rotation at guard in the scrimmage.
Meanwhile, true freshman tackle Chasz Wright has gotten a lot of work on the right side after enrolling early in January. Wright is a hulking prospect, listed at 6-foot-7 and 321 pounds, he’s physically imposing even when standing next to the 6-foot-5, 335-pound Smith.
Sophomore center Wendy Laurent has taken a lot of snaps at center and is another player who’s stood out to Smith.
“Everybody has stepped forward in the right direction in their own little way and we’re all starting to click together in terms of chemistry,” Smith said. “It’s no pressure honestly. I’m going out there and I trust the other four guys on the line to handle their business and they’re doing the same. My role is kind of the go-to guy in terms of protections and understanding the schemes.”
Franklin has been asked a lot about how the offensive line is coming along. He said he’s noticed the unit has been “flying around” as spring practice has wound down.
But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to pencil in starters for the fall.
“Everybody wants to talk about the quarterback. Everyone wants to talk about the running backs,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to get the o-line situation resolved and develop some wide receivers as well so those running backs have a chance to be as productive as we can possibly make them. And having legitimate threats at wideout will help with that and having a consistent, physical offensive line in front of them is very, very important.”
Lewis picking up where he left off
The last time Penn State fans saw Geno Lewis in a game, the then-redshirt freshman was burning Wisconsin defenders for a 59-yard touchdown catch in the season-ending win at Camp Randall Stadium.
So far this spring, Lewis is right on track in his development to replace Allen Robinson as quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s go-to receiver.
“I’ve been really pleased with him,” Franklin said. “He’s a big-bodied kid with great ball skills, tremendous leaping ability. Been very impressed with him in the red zone and long-ball situations, being able to go up and get the ball. I think he does that as well as anybody in the country. I believe that, I really do.”
While both he and Hackenberg are learning a new offense, Lewis said having a year with Hackenberg has helped the two know how each other communicate. Making adjustments between plays is easier, Lewis said since both know each other’s tendencies and abilities better.
And with Robinson gone, Lewis said he’s focused on tightening his rout-running and getting in and out of his breaks quicker in order to provide Hackenberg with a better, more consistent target.
“Me and Christian got on a pretty good page,” Lewis said. “We’re seeing pretty eye-to-eye now. I think it went well. Definitely worked on some things I needed to work on and I’m really excited for the season.”
Lewis showed early flashes that he could develop into a deep threat last season.
He hauled a game-winning, 54-yard touchdown pass over the middle to lift Penn State over Syracuse in the opener. And although he didn’t get as many balls thrown his way in the few weeks afterward, he emerged as a physical downfield blocker and earned more targets toward the final third of the season. Six of his 18 catches came in the final three games.
“Between now and the start of summer camp he needs to take that next step,” Franklin said. “I still think he could work on being a little bit more explosive and quick, short-area quickness and things like that. But talk about a big-bodied kid that’ll go up and get the ball and make plays, I’ve been pleased with him.”
Ficken tested with new techniques
Sam Ficken’s kicked in frigid temperatures. He’s booted wet footballs through heavy downpours. He’s forced a few more kicks through hot, sticky atmospheres.
Until Franklin and his staff arrived, he hasn’t approached a kick after getting water blasted in his face or an air horn blown in his ear.
“He kind of does some different things,” Penn State’s senior kicker said. “He’ll squirt you in the face with some water. He’ll yell right when you’re about to kick. He’ll get in your way. He’ll mess with the holder. He’ll wet the balls.”
All of this with Ficken’s teammates’ fates on the line. Since taking over, Franklin’s given Ficken the chance to end practice with long field goals. If he hits them, Penn State players don’t have to run dreaded sprints. According to his teammates, Ficken’s come through for the most part.
And he’s done so with his trusty holder – senior safety Ryan Keiser – back to form. A hand injury prevented Keiser from continuing his holding duties last season. With Keiser holding, Ficken hit seven of eight field goals. Without him, Ficken was just eight for 15.
Ficken admitted that he struggled without Keiser putting the ball down.
“I just try to get the ball down as fast as I can and get it in the way he likes the ball held,” Keiser said. “We’ve been working together for a while so I don’t know how big of a change that was for him but I want to be out there every time if it helps the team and helps Ficken do well.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.