Exam Day: Offensive Line Tightens Up Details With Weekly Test
If it’s Thursday, it’s exam day for the offensive line in the Lasch Football Building.
As a means for testing how well his linemen retain information on the week’s opponent, offensive line coach Mac McWhorter gives his guys a sort of written test where they have to fill out the depth chart, identify blitzes they’re likely to see that week and draw up their own offensive plays based on the defensive look. Left guard Miles Dieffenbach said the coaches don’t necessarily grade the exams but return them with notes on areas they messed up. Tight end Kyle Carter said his former position coach, Bill Kenney, gave his unit a similar test last season. Kenney coached exterior linemen.
Dieffenbach expects the Illinois defensive front to be the strongest unit the line has faced this year. Two names to remember for Saturday are Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence, who have combined for 26 tackles, five tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks, and five quarterback hits.
Penn State’s left tackle Donovan Smith is expected back for Saturday’s game in Champaign (noon kick) after injuring his ankle and missing the previous two weeks, though it’s unknown how prominent a role the redshirt freshman will play. He has yet to finish a full game, and he worked with the second-team unit in the brief practice period the media was allowed to watch Wednesday.
The Nittany Lions have rotated some of its offensive depth during the last couple weeks, a move that saves energy and prepares the next wave in case injury hits. Angelo Mangiro, Eric Shrive and Ty Howle are among those who have seen action in addition to Adam Gress, who has played right tackle with Smith out.
“It’s good to catch breaks at some point in the game,” Dieffenbach said. “I think the best thing that it does is it adds depth to our offensive line. You never know what’s going to happen with injuries, so you don’t want to have only five guys that are playing in games.”
Hodges Settling in at Strong Side
Gerald Hodges is adjusting well to his new strong side linebacking position. His 30 tackles trail only fellow linebacker Mike Mauti for the team lead (42), and he also has an interception and fumble recovery.
Hodges made the switch to strong side after excelling at the weak side position last season, leading the team with 106 tackles en route to All-Big Ten honors. Though Hodges’ numbers are slightly down from last year, he believes that has more to do with opponents running toward the weak side.
“They put me in a new position and trust that I can do it,” he said. “The most difficult part is lining up outside the box and still trying to get inside the box for certain rushers.”
It’s the first time Hodges has been able to play alongside Mauti, as both were slowed by injuries in previous years. The effect on Hodges?
“I wouldn’t say we’re competing out there,” Hodges said. “It’s just a natural competition for both of us. When you see him making a good play, that drives me to make a good play.”
NFL Scouts Continue to be Present at Practice
NFL scouts from the Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins were among those in attendance at Wednesday’s practice, a common sight under first-year coach Bill O’Brien, who previously was an offensive coach for the New England Patriots before being hired in January.
The presence of scouts is a new dynamic at Penn State. In previous years, one of the only true opportunities to make a live impression is during the team’s Pro Day, usually held in March. Some seniors are obvious NFL talents, for instance, defensive tackle Jordan Hill and linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Others, such as quarterback Matt McGloin, may have to prove themselves more down the road and in a rookie mini camp in order to latch on with a franchise.
O’Brien has raved about the senior class throughout the year for its leadership under the difficult circumstances set forth by the NCAA, and there is also plenty of talent within the group that can play on Sundays next fall. And so far, it doesn’t sound like having NFL evaluators hanging around has been having much of an impact as to how Penn State is practicing.
“It really doesn’t make a difference,” McGloin said.
All of Penn State’s running backs practiced Wednesday. Bill Belton, who has not played since Sept. 1 because of a sprained ankle, had both lower legs taped up, and Mike Zordich, who left Saturday’s victory against Temple in the third quarter with a bruised left knee, wore a black knee brace during practice . . . Pete Massaro dressed but retreated outdoors to work with the training staff and rehab. O’Brien said earlier this week Massaro probably would not play Saturday . . . Freshman linebacker Nyeem Wartman, out since suffering a sprained knee and bone bruise at Virginia on Sept. 8, did not practice but was walking around pretty well without any sort of brace or noticeable limp.