When Miles Dieffenbach turned around he expected to see fellow offensive lineman Ty Howle standing nearby. Howle was nowhere to be found.
Standing on the sideline at Beaver Stadium, Dieffenbach finally spied his teammate after a few visual sweeps of his surroundings. Howle was across the lower bowl, pumping his knees up and over hundreds of concrete steps. All the way up. All the way down. Repeat.
“We’re out doing our scrimmages and all of a sudden he’s running all around the stadium,” Dieffenbach recently recalled.
That was last summer when a torn pectoral muscle limited Howle to those type of cardiovascular workouts while his teammates bashed their way around on the field below. Now, Howle is next to Dieffenbach when the latter looks over. Howle has seized Penn State’s starting center position vacated by Matt Stankiewitch.
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Although the upcoming season figures to be the first for Howle as a full-time starter, he’s not lacking experience. In fact, Howle returns to an offensive line he helped buoy last season by playing a critical depth role. Howle had to get back on the field first.
He suffered the torn pectoral muscle during a bench press session two weeks before training camp and missed all of camp and the first three games of the season while rehabing and recovering from surgery.
“I think I was in a sling for about a month I would say,” Howle said. “It’s really based on how the injury is progressing in the training room, physically and biologically how fast I was healing. Gradually I started with pushups and then started inclining a little bit of weight and it’s all been a gradual process.”
So has learning the offense as the unit’s new anchor.
But Howle feels like he’s on the same page with his teammates along the front line. Three of them, guards Dieffenbach and John Urschel, and left tackle Donovan Smith are all returning starters while Adam Gress, Eric Shrive and Garry Gilliam all played sizable amounts of snaps too, although Gilliam’s time was spent at tight end. Gilliam is now a tackle.
“It’s something that’s natural to me,” Howle said. “I played it all through high school. I’m really enjoying it, a new system from last year and learning that from the center position. Physically, I feel great. Mentally, I’m picking everything up so it’s going real well.”
When Howle did return to action last season, he did so four weeks earlier than when doctors expected him to be ready. Then, Howle often alternated in at guard for Dieffenbach and short snapped for field goal kicks. He started the final game of the season in place of Dieffenbach.
Howle isn’t the only player offensive line coach Mac McWhorter can lean on to slot in at multiple spots should a certain situation warrant it.
“Just thinking of it off the top of my head, (Gress) is well-versed at both tackles as is (Smith),” Urschel said. “Ty played a lot of football for us last year at left guard. I even took a snap or two at left guard last season.”
Penn State’s versatility among offensive linemen isn’t by coincidence.
“I think the way coach Mac looks at it, you shouldn’t go into the meeting or a film session thinking, ‘Ok, I only need to know what the tackle’s doing here. I should go in and know what everyone on the field is doing,’” Gress said. “I know that it’s clearly unlikely that I would be playing center any time soon, but I think it’s the importance of knowing the other players, what they’re doing at their position just for the sake of how the entire offense is ran. There are a lot of people who go center-guard and there are a lot of guys who go guard-tackle and that’s important to be able to be amphibious in the position.”
For now, Gress has taken most of his spring reps from the right tackle spot. Like the rest of the players who will likely see time at tackle this season, Gress added plenty of bulk in the offseason.
At weigh-ins this spring, Gress checked in at 321 pounds, up from the 311 he came in at last year. Smith added 11 pounds in the offseason while Gilliam packed on 28 pounds. Shrive is up to 314 pounds from 305.
While all of Penn State’s expected starters have reported gains in the weight room, Gress specifically recalled his measurables earlier this spring. Looking to improve his run blocking, he bettered his squat by 80 pounds over an eight-week winter program.
“It’s going to make me more explosive and when I run out to block a defensive end or whenever I come down to double team a three-technique with John Urschel, there’s going to be more power behind it and it’s going to be more explosive and overall it’s going to be a better block,” Gress said.
And those combination blocks are coming along a lot smoother than they were this time last season.
“It really is a lot better,” Dieffenbach said. “Last spring, you’ve got all these new coaches, you want to play as hard as you can, then you’ve got to look at this playbook, you’ve got all new plays and so you’ve got a lot of things on your mind. Now we can really hone in on the technique of just getting in there and becoming a great offensive line.”
Dieffenbach thinks they can improve on last years’ results when the offensive line paved the way for 1,737 rushing yards and gave up 21 sacks.
“I really think we can be a truly great offensive line,” Dieffenbach said. “We’ve been putting in a lot of work and we’re really honing in on our schemes and being very aggressive up front. I think the sky’s the limit with our offensive line.”