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Penn State Football: Lack of Depth Can Have Its Advantages

by on April 18, 2014 12:00 AM

Tom DeVenney was sitting at the back of the Penn State football media room after the Blue-White Game on Saturday.

All alone.

He had talked with the writer from his hometown paper, but that was basically it.

Out of uniform, slumped slightly in his chair, Devenney looked a bit beefy but hardly 6-foot-1. And certainly not 299 pounds. Or like a former top-notch wrestler and all-league offensive lineman at Warwick High School. (All of which he is.)

With his full beard and cuddly countenance, he was more Zach Galifianakis than Mike Munchak. He was even a bit geeky, like he’s a biomechanical engineering major or something. (Which he is.) More likely, he was a freshman walk-on who did not play a single down of football for Penn State last season.  (Which he is.)

Last Saturday, five months later, he was the first-team right guard for the Nittany Lions in their spring practice-ending scrimmage played in front of 72,000 fans. Not bad, considering Devenney began the game as center for the third-string White squad.

To one’s surprise – or even notice -- Devenney was not one of the 48 players featured in the spring game program. And after the game, almost no one recognized him. Or knew who he was. After walking up to him, I said, “Sorry, but I’m about to break an unwritten rule about asking who you are. But … who are you?”

“I’m Tom DeVenney,” he answered. “I play center and right guard.”

Ah, yeah, right.

PLUGGING AWAY

That’s the way it rolls for Penn State in 2014, especially along the offensive line. Head coach James Franklin was already dealt a small hand. (Although O-line coach Herb Hand is anything but small; on Twitter he’s identified himself as 6-2 at 250.) But by the time the Blue-White Game was over, Franklin had lost at least five offensive linemen to a.) injury, b.) suspension, and c.) other. All of the above resulted in: d.) Tom Devenney.

While a lot of fans and nearly all of the media look at the Nittany Lions’ lack of depth as a bad thing, Penn State players like Devenney aren’t so inclined. Every one of the 90 guys on the roster wants to play. The circumstances under which it happens may not be best, but getting on the field any way you can ain’t bad.

Devenney was nonplussed about being thrown into the first-team fray. It’s not like he wasn’t paying attention at practice, when walk-on tight end Albert Hall was shifted to tackle, Derek Downey and Brian Gaia moved over from defense, and State College walk-on Evan Galimberti was running second-team after missing last season with an injury. 

“I think it’s going pretty well, but that’s how the sport works,” Devenney said. “A couple guys moved over from defense and they’re doing a fantastic job. A lot of the guys are a lot more ready to play a lot of positions than they were before. We’re a lot more versatile than we used to be.

“Whether the numbers are low or not, if someone goes down we can always plug someone in. That’s of the advantages of our new system and our new coaching staff.”

Fewer scholarships, thinner depth charts, shiftier positioning, mounting injuries – they all mean more PT for a PSU player. And that’s A-OK with them.Walk-ons like Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle are now on scholarship and tag-team at safety. Chris Gulla is Penn State’s No. 1 punter, even though he and his high school coach, former Nittany Lion Chip LaBarca, concede that Gulla is a better place-kicker than punter.

Gregg Garrity, son of Sugar Bowl star Gregg and grandson of 1954 team captain Jim, has the opportunity to follow in some very large and fast footsteps. But Gregg The Younger seems up to the challenge; he has sure hands, quick feet, is a lithe runner and owns a high football IQ. The NCAA sanctions may have closed some doors, but it also opened others. Opportunity knocked, and a lot of players aren’t shy that they were the ones ringing the doorbell. They’re not wringing their hands; they’re answering the bell.

“Looking around, our numbers are low but we’re not complaining,” Devenney said. “We’re getting more reps, we’re getting better every day. We’re just attacking it with a positive attitude, because that’s the only thing we can do, that we’re in control of.”

A STATE HIGH

Attacking is right. In addition to Galimberti, State High grads Jack Haffner and Matt Baney are making the most of a thinner roster. Baney grabbed a start at linebacker on Saturday, when a few of Linebacker U’s top students had excused absences. Baney, who transferred from St. Francis, even snagged a pick.

Haffner, a 2,000-yard rusher for the Little Lions, leveled a big hit on Keiser in the first quarter that got some attention. Afterwards, when asked about the possibility of playing a key role on the squad because of low numbers in 2014, he lowered his shoulder again.

“Last year I played on three special teams and got a letter, so I already have a role,” Haffner said with some indignation. “Kick return, punt return and punt team for awhile until I had a sprained ankle. I hope to have a similar expanded role and just keep on working hard.”

Look around. Some of these players aren’t just walk-ons. Some are stay-ons.

Franklin knows better than anyone that a roster disadvantage can mean a recruiting advantage. Five freshmen have already enrolled early and 20 more Franklin signees will be coming this summer. His recruiting pitch when he led that mad dash to the Signing Day deadline was, “Come to Penn State and play almost immediately. If not sooner.” The same marketing strategy is a big reason why Penn State currently has the top class for 2015. And it also helped Franklin turn around Vanderbilt very quickly.

“We’re offering the same thing, but for a different reason,” Franklin told Sports Illustrated. “At Vanderbilt there hadn't been a history of strong recruiting … so we were offering early playing time because of that. Whereas here, we’re selling early playing time because we're only at 75 scholarship players.”

CARE PACKAGE

Franklin promises that he won’t discriminate when buyers step forward. Not that he doesn't care.

“… I don't care if you’re in-state, out-of-state,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re a senior or a freshman, I don’t care if you’re a returning starter, I don’t care if you’re scholarship or walk-on. We’re going to play the best guys. This is not Little League, politics, play-your-son type of deal. We’re going to play the best guys.”

Eventually, the best guy at center last Saturday was Tom Devenney. For him, playing is the thing.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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