UNIVERSITY PARK - One of the smartest guys in college football and one of the best NFL prospects in the Big Ten will anchor a Penn State offensive line that has big expectations this season.
"I'd say tremendous," junior left guard Miles Dieffenbach said of the group's progress this spring. "We really have picked up where we left off and have been performing at a high level. We're really gelling well."
Senior right guard and Academic All-American John Urschel has the most experience among the linemen, while mammoth sophomore left tackle Donovan Smith has a chance to be a star before his college career is over.
The rest of the first team includes seniors Ty Howle at center and Adam Gress at right tackle. Howle is the only projected starter who hasn't played significant time, but Urschel said no one should be worrying about him.
"Ty Howle is a great center and a great football player," Urschel said. "I'd say he's one of the most underrated football players on our team. You don't hear about him enough, and I don't think you guys [in the media] talk about him enough."
The offensive line, coached by Mac McWhorter, has benefited perhaps more than any other group from Penn State's new strength and conditioning program over the past year. All of the linemen mentioned strength coach Craig Fitzgerald as a big influence on their development, none more so than Gress.
The offensive line should be one of Penn State's strengths this season. The projected starters:
"If it wasn't for Fitz being here right now, I don't know if I would be in the position I'm in right now to be playing as much as I have," said Gress, who's 6-foot-6, 321 pounds and has dramatically increased his strength and bulk.
"Fitz's weightroom program is very well-fitted to us, it's very well-fitted for putting on bulk, a lot of muscle mass and getting a lot of explosiveness," Urschel said.
All of those things are huge for offensive linemen.
It goes without saying that linemen are big and strong, but the focus of Fitzgerald's program has been getting them stronger in football-specific areas. Urschel, a math major who already has had an astronomy paper published, gave a great example when it comes to pass protection.
"To be able to have the bulk and size and strength to be able to stop the bull rush and hold your ground as a pass protector, that's something that I struggled with a little bit earlier in my career, especially when I was a little leaner," Urschel said. "Coach Fitz has definitely helped me and the offensive line as a whole really get stronger, get bigger and more muscular."
Coach Bill O'Brien's passing offense cannot succeed if the quarterback doesn't have ample time, so the focus on improving pass protection goes hand in hand with what O'Brien wants to accomplish throwing the ball.
"The biggest thing for me from last season to this season is absolutely pass protection," Gress said. "I had a couple rough plays throughout the season, and I decided at the end of the season that was absolutely something I had to fix. I think it's progressed tremendously, and I'm really happy with how it looks on film."
There was quite an uproar at the beginning of the spring when Dieffenbach was listed at center on Penn State's initial roster.
"My dad texted me and said, 'You're playing center?' I said, 'News to me,'" Dieffenbach said with a smile.
O'Brien ended the confusion during a news conference when he emphatically said, "Miles Dieffenbach is at guard."
The Lions have no concerns at left tackle with Smith, who should be able to protect the blind side of whoever wins the quarterback battle between Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson. Smith has the makings of a high NFL draft pick in a couple of years if he progresses as expected.
The least-experienced player on the line is Howle, who tore a pectoral muscle last summer but was able to return during the season to get some action at guard. That was important experience, Howle said, and now he's moving back to his natural position of center.
"I'm going to come in and play aggressive, and I'm going to give it everything I have every game," Howle said. "Like a lot of these guys - our senior class now - we've only got one more season left, so we're trying to make it the best we can."