Donovan Smith and his offensive linemates are used to turning heads.
Take for example when a group of them lumber into any local restaurant.
“Anywhere you get 10 to 12 fat dudes weighing 300-plus pounds walking in, they’re going to get a couple of eyes and heads turning thinking there’s going to be no more food,” Smith said.
Since spring practice however, Smith and his robust crew have garnered a different type of attention — skepticism. Graduations and injuries have left Penn State thin along the offensive line where, with the exception of Smith, the Nittany Lions will be breaking in four new starters during preseason camp.
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That process — an audition for two new guards, a new center and a new right tackle to protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg and propel Penn State’s running game — officially began Monday with the start of training camp.
Really, it’s been going on all summer. And new offensive line coach Herb Hand has liked what he’s seen.
He’s watched as nearly all of Penn State’s linemen have added meaningful bulk in Dwight Galt’s strength program. Ten of the program’s returning big men have added a combined average of 13 pounds since spring practice.
They’ve spent plenty of time in the team’s video rooms too, Hand said. Younger players have relied on Smith and fellow veteran Miles Dieffenbach, who tore his ACL during spring practice, to lead film sessions multiple times a week.
“I’m looking forward to this year,” said Hand, during the team’s annual media day. “I’m looking forward to this group. I think we’ve got a special group. I like these guys.”
It’s a group that includes two converted defensive linemen in Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey, who haven’t played offense since high school, a pair of redshirt freshmen in Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon, who both think they were close to playing as true freshmen for Bill O’Brien, and a longtime reserve in junior Angelo Mangiro, who is trying to earn a full-time starting spot for the first time in his career at center.
Then there’s a host of other untested options. Redshirt sophomore center Wendy Laurent, converted tight end Albert Hall are back and a handful of true freshmen are looking to earn rare playing time in their debut seasons.
Hand has been in a similar situation before and has posted stellar results.
While he was the offensive line coach at Tulsa in 2007, the Golden Hurricane were faced with similar turnover. While Tulsa had its right guard back from the year before, Hand was forced to move a defensive linemen to left tackle, shift a guard with only two previous starts to center and inserted a right tackle and left guard who had never played before.
The Golden Hurricane went on to a 10-4 season and led FBS teams in total offense with 544 yards per game.
“We had the No. 1 offense in the country and it was with a bunch of guys that (were in) the same situation,” Hand said.
But this offseason has presented a different situation for Smith. The hulking left tackle tasked with protecting Hackenberg’s blind side said he feels like an “old guy” entering what will be his third season as a starter.
During Penn State’s first preseason practice Monday, Smith pulled rookie Chance Sorrell aside and pointed out a few missteps the true freshman had just made during a footwork drill. Smith demonstrated the correct technique. Sorrell nodded and got a pat on the helmet from the veteran as he ran back to the sideline.
“It’s my obligation, it’s everyone’s obligation in terms of the starting five guys and the whole offensive line and the whole team,” Smith said. “You’ve got to take guys under your wings and show them the right from the wrong and let them know what to do.”
For now, the starting five is still to be determined.
Mangiro hopes to finally crack the lineup full time after seeing action as a reserve in each of Penn State’s last 24 games.
“I prepared throughout the week like I was going to start,” Mangiro said “I think that really helped me because it prepared me for this moment that I’m in now. I watched film. I studied guys. I used to pick guys like Ty Howle, John Urschel, Miles Dieffenbach, their minds about what’s going on up front and what we’re seeing and how to do things. That’s helped me for this moment now, I believe.”
Nelson’s moment nearly came last season. Before the season opener against Syracuse, Nelson said O’Brien told him to be ready to play. Nelson didn’t get in to the game however and took a redshirt year.
The spring was tough for Nelson as he suffered a dislocated knee cap and torn cartilage early on that kept him out of most workouts. Although he joined Laurent and Smith as players in light blue, non-contact jerseys on Monday, Nelson said he’s been given a positive prognosis and is ready to play.
“Coach Hand has talked a lot about mentally knowing the offense because I wasn’t there during spring that I would have to spend a lot more time in the film room and I’ve been doing that,” Nelson said. “I wanted to know this stuff as well as I could so I wouldn’t be behind when I got out on the field.”
Few Penn State players have altered their bodies as much as Dowrey and Gaia. The two former defensive tackles who helped the Nittany Lions in their five-man defensive front sets and goal line fronts last season have added nearly 35 pounds combined.
Hand described them as “balls of clay” in that he’s had a clean slate with which to work with them and hasn’t had to coach out any bad offensive line habits.
Meanwhile, their experience playing against offensive linemen has come in handy for youngsters like Nelson and Mahon, who said they’ve learned more about defensive tendencies with Dowrey and Gaia in their meeting rooms. Mangiro said their perspectives have helped him, too.
“They bring another perspective from the defensive side of the ball,” Mangiro said. “They understand what defenses are doing because they’ve done it. So stuff that I’ve learned in my three years picking up on defenses, they already have the understanding. That’s something they have an advantage of.”
Hand said he and his offensive linemen understand that Penn State’s opponents and fans perceive an offensive line lacking on experience as a disadvantage.
They’re fine with that, Hand said. It’s added incentive.
“Right now we have something to prove. We know that,” Hand said. “You hope that as guys get experience and you develop and you build your program that now it shifts from where you’re a perceived question mark to where you’re a perceived exclamation point. And now when you’re the exclamation point you still have something to prove because you have to prove that you’re worthy of that as well.”