Matt Stankiewitch snapped the ball to quarterback Matt McGloin and immediately shuffled right.
The one-second process required precision because his next task entailed blocking Ohio State’s Johnathan Hankins, a 6-foot-3, 322-pound body-launcher expected to be an early-round NFL Draft selection.
Stankiewitch jammed his hands into Hankins’ chest. He forced his hands into the same spot again, allowing Penn State to run away from the Buckeye star.
Cunning work against Hankins and Purdue’s Kawann Short in consecutive games has placed Stankiewitch into discussions regarding the Big Ten’s top center.
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The senior receives another showcase Saturday when Penn State (6-3, 4-1 Big Ten) visits Nebraska (7-2, 4-1). The game has special meaning to Stankiewitch because the Cornhuskers play at Memorial Stadium, a venue Dave Rimington once called home.
Rimington, a first-team All-American at Nebraska from 1981-82, is one of the top interior linemen in college football history. The Rimington Trophy, given to the nation’s top center, is named in his honor.
Fifty-one players, including Stankiewitch, are on the award’s watch list.
Most college football players ignore awards chatter in public conversations. Not Stankiewitch.
“I definitely know what Dave Rimington did,” he said. “I think about it all the time trying to get that award. When you go day by day. ... If you want to stay up late, are the other guys going to be staying up late? Or are they going to be getting to bed and getting their rest? Are the other guys going to be eating right or practicing as hard as they can? You are always in competition with other people to get awards or to higher yourself for the next level.
“The thing is that you have to stay focused and keep your eye on the prize and that’s getting yourself the best that you can and ultimately getting your offense better and getting your team better. You have to stay focused.”
Stankiewitch’s impact on Penn State’s offense is difficult to quantify. But let’s give it a try. He was the only returning starter on the offensive line yet the the Nittany Lions will enter Saturday averaging 28.6 points and 412.2 yards per game. Behind a veteran line, Penn State averaged 19.3 points and 341.8 yards per game in 2011.
Senior Mike Farrell, junior John Urschel, sophomore Miles Dieffenbach and freshman Donovan Smith anchor Stankiewitch on this year’s starting line. The group has surrendered nine sacks in nine games.
“I definitely think Stank is one of the best centers in the conference,” McGloin said. “He’s really doing a great job as a fifth-year guy of taking command of that offensive line and constantly helping out those younger guys and keeping me off the ground. He’s really assumed a leadership role on this football team.”
The leadership role propels Stankiewitch into some challenging situations. The Big Ten features some significant warts, but some of the nation’s top interior defensive linemen, including Hankins and Short, play in the conference.
On multiple occasions against Ohio State and Purdue, Stankiewitch engaged in one-on-one encounters with Hankins and Short. Urschel and Dieffenbach, who play right and left guard, respectively, also lined up against the duo. Hankins made five tackles. Short had one. Neither player accumulated a sack or a tackle for a loss.
“Those are big-caliber guys,” Stankiewitch said. “Not only are they projected to go and play in the NFL, but their size, their height, their weight are NFL nose guard and NFL tackle sizes. It boosts my confidence to know that I’m able to go against those guys and I’m able to block them. It raises your standards week to week to know you have a lot of weight on your shoulders and you have to perform.”
Awaiting Stankiewitch this week is 6-foot-6, 295-pound Nebraska senior Baker Steinkhuler, a veteran with 35 career starts. Entering Memorial Stadium will evoke some childhood memories. Stankiewitch was a casual college football fan as a teenager, but he received a book about Nebraska’s weight program from Matt Harrison, whose older brother, Greg, played at Penn State, that sparked his interest.
Some of the techniques in the book helped Stankiewitch solidify his 6-foot-3 frame.
“I didn’t follow it to a ‘T,’” said Stankiewitch, who weighs 301 pounds. “But I read most of the book. I used a lot of their techniques, a lot of their lifting regiments when I was in high school. What a small world it is to actually to play against Nebraska. It’s going to be a cool experience to face them.”