Penn State Football

Penn State football: Nittany Lions ready for showdown with improving Minnesota defensive line

Normally a player with the nickname “Sasquatch” wouldn’t figure to be as flexible as Penn State offensive tackle Adam Gress has demonstrated he is.

It’s a determining factor if a big man like Gress — all 320 pounds of him packed onto a 6-foot-6 frame — can plow over defenders and also give ground to protect his quarterback from either the right or left side of the offensive line, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said.

The flexibility, in both senses of the word, is valuable for an offensive lineman.

And like he did against Illinois, Gress could see time at both right and left tackle spots as he’ll have a few talented Minnesota players bearing down on him — one of them being Theiren Cockran, the Gophers’ sack leader with 5 1/2 on the season.

“I honestly think that I've played (the left side) enough that whenever I get put there in the game or in practice or whatever, I practiced enough on both sides that it feels comfortable,” Gress said. “It feels completely natural.”

The reality is, it’s not easy for everyone that carries that much weight around to get in the proper stances necessary as they prepare to block incoming defensive ends.

Gress’s fellow tackles, Garry Gilliam and Donovan Smith have remained fixed in the right and left tackle positions, respectively.

“Number one, some guys have trouble just getting in a left-handed stance,” O’Brien said. “They're right-handed guys and it's difficult to get back and get in a left-handed stance. Is he flexible enough to do that? And Adam is. Adam has helped us in that regard. He's a very large human being. He's a bright guy, a physical player, and hard to rush around. So we like to try to use him on both sides. He's definitely a swing tackle.”

O’Brien mentioned Gilliam as a “swing tackle” as well while Smith is Penn State’s primary left tackle and spends his Saturday’s protecting quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s blindside.

Penn State’s tackles will have plenty of work to do at TCF Bank Stadium where the Golden Gophers will field a defensive line that has turned up the heat on opposing offenses lately. Minnesota defensive linemen have combined for 5 1/2 sacks over the last four games. Of that total, 3 1/2 came against Nebraska.

Meanwhile, the pressure from Minnesota’s defensive line has helped the Gophers improve their turnover margin where they are plus-5. In the last four weeks, Minnesota’s defense has forced six turnovers. Three forced fumbles have come from defensive linemen while a steady pass rush has had a hand in three interceptions thrown by opposing quarterbacks.

“This defense is making a lot of turnovers and I feel like we’ve definitely opened our eyes and see how really good we can be,” defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman said.

But Hageman has drawn the eyes of all of his team’s opponents. NFL scouts are also taking long looks at him.

The 6-foot-6, 311-pound defensive tackle is currently rated the No. 2 overall defensive tackle prospect by and figures to be a first or second-round NFL Draft pick in May.

“One of the better defensive linemen we've gone against,” O’Brien said. “He's explosive. Plays with good pad level. He's quick. Seems to me that he's going to be — has a chance to be a first or second-day draft pick. He's a very good player.”

And one that Penn State will likely have to double team to stop. Hageman has nine tackles for loss so far this season and two sacks.

Cockran has thrived playing beside Hageman and fellow defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli who is also having a solid season with 5 1/2 tackles for loss. But Cockran doesn’t put a value on statistics. He’s more concerned, along with his teammates, of being the reason Minnesota gets its fourth win in a row if it can beat Penn State.

“I’ve never made a sack goal,” Cockran said. “I’ve just wanted to go out there and perform.”