Mike Farrell dropped five pounds one week. He lost three pounds the following week.
By the time his spring ended, Farrell plunged below the mythical 300-pound mark Big Ten offensive linemen try to maintain.
Younger offensive tackles passed him on Penn State’s depth chart. After four years of waiting for full-time work, Farrell entered the summer as a 280-pound backup.
He understood he needed a respite from 16-hour days scurrying between activities.
Consider this past summer the most productive 2½ months of his football life.
Farrell has parlayed a strong summer into steady work on Penn State’s offensive line. Depending on redshirt freshman Donovan Smith’s health, Farrell will start at either left or right tackle when the Nittany Lions (4-2) visit Iowa (4-2) on Saturday night.
Shifting sides of the line is nothing compared to what Farrell experienced last spring.
Farrell endured two illnesses. He fulfilled academic objectives by student-teaching at Park Forest Middle School. He lifted weights before teaching teenagers. He practiced football when classes ended.
He was learning a new offense. He was competing with Smith and junior Adam Gress for a starting spot. He was eating meals on the run. He was exhausted. He wasn’t frail. But he wasn’t sturdy, either.
“I was wearing myself down,” he admitted Wednesday.
Every college student experiences a chaotic semester. Farrell’s arrived at the wrong time.
Penn State had four openings on its offensive line. Vacancies existed at both tackle spots.
But academics come first to Farrell, who attended Shady Side Academy, one of western Pennsylvania’s most demanding high schools. Instead of being fully-charged for Penn State’s first spring under new head coach Bill O’Brien and offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, Farrell worked toward completing his secondary education degree.
As his weight dipped, his cumulative GPA rose to 3.41.
His calendar started clearing in June, allowing him to become a regular at strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald’s draining, yet creative, workouts. His academic load dropped to regular levels. He found time to serve as the president of Penn State’s chapter Uplifting Athletes, an organization that raised more than $100,000 for the Kidney Cancer Association through its annual Lift for Life event.
“I wasn’t getting the right amount of rest, the right amount of nutrition,” Farrell said of his spring. “Once I got past that and went to a regular class schedule, it provided a break for me.”
On the field, things started clicking again on Aug. 6, the day Penn State opened fall camp. The 6-foot-6 Farrell weighed 306 pounds. He immediately started noticing the benefits of more rest, better nutrition and an entire summer in Fitzgerald’s program.
“You weren’t sure at first,” he said. “You don’t start off in full pads. We kind of build up to that. You never really know how you are playing until you get into full pads. Once we were able to get to that, I felt a lot more comfortable with the confidence I had with the summer program. I was able to attack the playbook and new offense that we were still learning.”
McWhorter, who coached Texas’ offensive line from 2005-10, admired Farrell’s transformation. When Penn State opened the season against Ohio University on Sept. 1, Farrell started opposite Smith at right tackle.
He moved to left tackle when Smith suffered an ankle injury the following week at Virginia. He started at left tackle and moved to right tackle in the same quarter when Smith returned last month at Illinois. Two weeks ago against Northwestern, Farrell played both positions and participated in all 99 offensive snaps.
“Mike has been a real blessing for us this year,” McWhorter said. “He started spring as a starter, fell off as spring went on and then had a tremendous off-season. He got himself stronger and more physical. He’s really bright. He plays both sides when I need him. He’s been a good leader. I’m just tickled to death with him.”
Shifting sides at tackle requires extra film work, but Farrell said everybody on the line makes similar sacrifices.
“This whole offensive line is a pretty committed group especially when it comes to film study and the little extra things,” he said. “So getting in there and putting in that extra time hasn’t been an issue.”
Farrell has developed into one of the Nittany Lions’ indispensable parts.
“The reason Mike is so special is because he plays left and right tackle,” quarterback Matt McGloin said. “Not too many guys can do that throughout the course of a game, just switch back and forth. That’s why Mike is so valuable to us.”