Earlier this week, James Franklin caught an after-practice glimpse of two players putting in some extra work.
One in particular piqued Franklin’s interest.
As Franklin watched from behind Penn State’s practice facility, Miles Dieffenbach and defensive tackle Anthony Zettel tried to out position one another in a one-on-one drill. Dieffenbach wanted Zettel to push him, first with a speed move, then with a bull rush, further evidence of Dieffenbach’s progression from knee surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the spring.
On Wednesday, Dieffenbach continued his quest to return to Penn State’s lineup and worked with the first and second-team offensive lines during the portion of Penn State’s practice open to reporters. Dieffenbach’s status for Saturday’s game against Ohio State is uncertain. He has not suited up for a game this season.
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“His approach, from Day 1 has been awesome,” Franklin said. “But there’s a difference between your approach to treatment and your approach to the weight room than actually being out on the field again, flying around with bodies flying around all around your legs and things like that. I think he’s gaining confidence.”
But Dieffenbach looked solid playing next to Donovan Smith and Albert Hall on the left side of Penn State’s line in practice. He helped center Angelo Mangiro open a big hole on a Zach Zwinak touchdown run against the scout team and got a pat on the helmet from offensive line coach Herb Hand as he came off the field.
Dieffenbach’s teammates have sensed his excitement building as he’s been able to do more as his recovery has gone well. Franklin made it clear earlier this week that Dieffenbach would play “if he’s ready” and the senior would work his way in gradually with “a series or two” to see how he feels at game speed.
“I think he’s going to have a little bit of a transition period,” quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. “But again, Miles has played a lot of football here and I don’t expect it to be too big of a transition for him.”
After dropping weight to ease the strain on his repaired knee, Dieffenbach began working out months ago and progressed from running to working in individual drills to working with a group of players. Penn State’s two bye weeks allowed him not only extra time to condition, but it presented a unique set of circumstances in which to do so with simulated games with and against Penn State’s younger players.
Although Dieffenbach was practicing primarily at right guard when he was hurt, he has returned to the left side next to Smith where Dieffenbach started all 12 games last season. Redshirt freshman Brendan Mahon has started every game at left guard this season with Brian Gaia starting all but one game at right guard. Derek Dowrey made one start at right guard.
“We’re all definitely really excited to get him back because he brings that key experience to the line,” redshirt freshman tackle Andrew Nelson said. “People always talk about that we’re an inexperienced offensive line and that is definitely true. Miles being the most experienced, he brings back a lot of those game reps that he’s taken, things he’s seen before in games that he can kind of teach to us so he’s almost a coach on the field.”
Dieffenbach has not been available to reporters since the season began but said in July his plan was to try and play in Penn State’s final three games. In the meantime, he’s been elected as one of the team’s captains and has spent plenty of time guiding his younger teammates through film sessions.
Without Dieffenbach on the field, however, Penn State’s offensive line has been slow to develop. Penn State is averaging just 93.2 rushing yards per game.
But he may be in line to help out in a useful way on the field sooner than most thought.
“There’s a mental aspect to it as well,” Franklin said. “There’s the physical confidence and the strength to have the ability to do your job and also to have the mental confidence as well. And then the footwork, there’s muscle memory build-up and he hasn’t had that in a while now.”