Penn State Football

Brian Gaia settles into new role at center

Penn State guard Brian Gaia blocks Rutgers defensive lineman Julian Pinnix-Odrick during the Saturday, September 19, 2015 game at Beaver Stadium. Penn State won, 28-3.
Penn State guard Brian Gaia blocks Rutgers defensive lineman Julian Pinnix-Odrick during the Saturday, September 19, 2015 game at Beaver Stadium. Penn State won, 28-3. CDT photo

It’s certainly not the most glamorous position on an already-beleaguered line, but Brian Gaia has really taken to playing center.

“I like playing center,” he said on Tuesday via phone. “I’m kind of in control of how we block up front and stuff like that. So I like putting everyone on the same page…Just being center allows me to have more control.”

Gaia never snapped a ball before he started the transition from guard immediately after the team’s 2015 season ended. He’ll fill the gap, by all indicators, left vacant by captain Angelo Mangiro, who spent all of last year snapping to Christian Hackenberg under center.

“I’ve been practicing exclusively at center this spring,” he said. “It’s hard to get used to snapping and blocking, all that stuff so just trying to get in as many reps as possible. I think center (instead of guard) is the future for me and we’ll see how the rest of spring ball plays out, and the rest of summer camp and all of that.”

Gaia won’t be snapping to a pair of hands under center, nor will he be snapping to a veteran quarterback like Mangiro did.

Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s spread system will have Gaia getting the ball to either redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley or redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens this fall (he said the two are still getting equal reps in practices this spring), and while the former has all of a couple dozen in-game reps to his name, the latter has none at all.

And, of course, the yet-to-be-named starting quarterback will be in shotgun.

I mean, it simplifies the look we get from the defense. The more plays we run the faster, the harder it is to either get fresh guys in or they can’t call a complicated blitz or something like that because they have to get the call in fast.

Center Brian Gaia, on offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s spread scheme

“Really, you have to find whether it’s stance or hand position on the ball, making sure you lock your elbow with your wrist because that way it’s a pendulum effect,” said Gaia on adjusting to the length and style of snapping in shotgun.

“If you break your wrist, (the ball) is usually gonna float on you or it’s not gonna go where you want it. So it’s finding the motion that sets up that muscle memory every time.”

It’s not the first time Gaia has been asked to switch into a different position — he was once a defensive tackle who converted to guard — but playing along the line instead of on the other side of the ball completely has made for a much simpler task, he said.

Otherwise, Gaia said clean reps have been his main focus, as has getting accustomed to the snap-then-block routine. He’s also used resources like Mangiro and pro center Stefan Wisniewski, the latter of whom has been working out at the Nittany Lions’ facilities a bit through spring ball.

It’s a position that requires a huge amount of communication in calling and relaying checks and defensive looks, which Gaia, not known for his lack of vocalization, relishes. He said that while the transition has required a lot of work, Moorhead’s offense has helped in that it’s “center friendly.”

“I mean, it simplifies the look we get from the defense,” he said of the uptempo system. “The more plays we run the faster, the harder it is to either get fresh guys in or they can’t call a complicated blitz or something like that because they have to get the call in fast.”

Gaia also said that the no-huddle helps with the line’s communication in general, from defensive schemes across the trench being forced to simplify to the fact that the team has more time to actually observe the opposing schemes without ticking off seconds in a huddle before a play.

“(The offense) just gives us a more standard look every play so that we know what to expect,” he said.

Gaia will debut in his new role on Saturday in Penn State’s annual Blue-White game.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 814-231-4629, @JourdanRodrigue

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