Penn State coach James Franklin said his team has no choice but to embrace “cross-training” to build depth.
The staff is teaching players multiple positions, so they’re ready to step in throughout the season.
With just one returning starter, two converted defensive linemen and a redshirt freshman at the top of the depth chart for the season opener, the training method has been crucial for a thin offensive line.
“That’s going to allow you to get your best 11 guys on the field,” Franklin said, “rather than saying, ‘OK, this guy is the starting right guard’ and your right tackle has to come out of the game for a play to maybe get his ankle taped or something like that. Now you put another guy in the game. Well, we’re going to put the best guys on the field constantly.”
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The Nittany Lions’ offensive line will be tested by an experienced Central Florida defense in the season opener Saturday in Dublin, Ireland.
Donovan Smith provides experience at left tackle after starting 11 games last season. Center Angelo Mangiro has played in every game the last two years as a reserve. Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey are listed as the starters at right guard and left guard, respectively, after switching from the defensive line during the offseason. Andrew Nelson redshirted in 2013 and will make his Penn State debut at right tackle.
Franklin said Dowrey remains in competition at left guard with Brendan Mahon, but both will play.
Mangiro said the group is ready to take on the Knights.
“We’re very excited to go out there and play and prove ourselves,” Mangiro said. “We have a lot of young guys, a lot of guys that redshirted last year, so I’m sure those guys are very excited to not just practice, actually play in the game. I think we’re motivated.”
Other backups on the line include right tackle Chasz Wright, right guard Tom Devenney, center Wendy Laurent and left tackle Albert Hall.
But through cross-training, the linemen should be prepared to slide into different spots if necessary.
Offensive coordinator John Donovan said the staff started cross-training a few years ago. He and Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand worked together on Franklin’s staff at Vanderbilt.
“If you have your five starting O-lineman and your sixth-best O-lineman let’s say is one of your backup tackles, but one of your guards gets nicked up or dinged up — to be able to put him in that spot because he’s the next best guy is what you would prefer to do,” Donovan said.
The goal, as Franklin said, is to get the best 11 players on the field.
Mangiro said the cross-training helped the linemen develop an understanding of technique at each position and led to a better grasp of the playbook and offensive concepts.
“Part of training camp is to put guys in uncomfortable positions to make us tougher and smarter,” Mangiro said. “And I think by doing that, (Hand) did that and made us more versatile as an offensive line. Having guys play multiple positions is huge in creating depth and versatility.”
The Nittany Lions will be depending on two former defensive linemen to contribute at the guard positions.
Gaia played in all 12 games at defensive tackle and on special teams in 2013. Dowrey played in eight games on the defensive line.
Mangiro said both have made the transition well.
“I have no worries about those guys for the game,” Mangiro said. “They’re prepared as best as any of us are prepared.”
The coaching staff is pleased with the line’s progress.
Franklin said the team’s done the best it can to create depth at the position, adding he feels good about the plan in place.
And Donovan said the linemen will be ready to go on game day.
“I think I like where we’re at,” Donovan said. “I think we’ll continue to get better there, but those guys have done everything we’ve asked them to do.
“And if they play the way they’re capable of playing just like a lot of other guys on this team — not do too much, not asked to do too much, just do what you’re asked to do, do your job — I think that we’ll be able to execute the way we need to and that’s being able to think fast and being able to process the information.”