UNIVERSITY PARK - New Penn State football coach James Franklin knows he has one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten - and maybe the nation - in Christian Hackenberg.
What Franklin doesn't know is if he can keep him off his back.
"Where our focus is," Franklin said when addressing the press on media day, "is all the pieces of the puzzle around Hack."
When it comes to the offensive line, it might look a bit like Franklin bought one of those old puzzles at a yard sale where a couple of pieces are missing. So Franklin has turned two a couple of players that used to try to beat up the offensive line in an effort - Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia - to make sure things fit together securely around his star signal-caller.
"It's fun. They come over from the defense, and they bring that tenacity and that mindset to the offensive side and still do the same thing," Smith said. "It's just a different game a little bit, but they're adjusting pretty well. I'm excited to play next to them and see what they can do."
Originally defensive tackles, Dowrey and Gaia figure to be lining up as the Nittany Lions' first team guards when Penn State opens the season on Aug. 30 in Ireland in the Croke Classic against UCF. They'll be teamed with Smith, the redshirt junior all-conference left tackle, and a couple of former blue-chip high school O-line prospects finally getting a chance to show what they can do, redshirt junior Angelo Mangiro and redshirt freshman right tackle Andrew Nelson.
Another redshirt freshman, Brendan Mahon, also has been in the mix in camp, filling in while Smith has been taking it slowly because of an injury. Mahon, like Mangiro, a four-star recruit when he came out of New Jersey, could play guard as well as tackle.
"For me and Brian, just coming over in the spring, it's about getting reps, game reps," Dowrey said. "I think Coach (Herb) Hand will have us prepared mentally, and Coach (Dwight) Galt has us prepared physically. We just need reps. We need lots of them."
They'll get them, because there really isn't much of a choice.
One could argue that no position has been affected more by the NCAA scholarship reductions and the turnover in coaching staffs than the offensive front. In the final years of the Joe Paterno regime, finding linemen with prototypical tackle size either wasn't prioritized or wasn't done effectively. Bill O'Brien's staff seemed interested in bringing in players with that type of potential, but, when the NCAA cut the Lions' scholarships, they had to make hard choices, and the area that felt the pinch was the offensive line.
Last year's line was a good one, However, starters John Urschel, Adam Gress and Ty Howle were in their final year of eligibility, and Garry Gilliam, who did possess tackle size, decided to forego the last season he could have suited up for Penn State.
To make matters tougher, starting guard Miles Dieffenbach sustained a serious knee injury in the spring, leaving Franklin to have to find four new starters to line up with Smith. He turned to Dowrey and Gaia, a pair of redshirt sophomores originally brought in to try to stop the offense.
As it turned out, Dowrey and Franklin were thinking along the same lines.
"I actually was thinking about going and asking him, so it all worked out," said Dowrey, a 6-foot-3, 323-pound Winchester, Va. native. "It's been a lot of different stuff, but I think it's been a good (move) for me and a good one for the team, as well."
Gaia (6-3, 291) actually was considered a guard by some recruiting services coming out of high school.
Mangiro, one of just three Lion offensive linemen who have lettered before along with Smith and Dieffenbach, said the learning curve hasn't been as extreme as one might expect, and that Dowrey and Gaia already have made a tight bond with their fellow linemen, something they said was crucial since the group must be able to perform as a unit.
Mangiro said there were some unforeseen benefits, too.
"They bring another perspective from the defensive side of the ball. They understand what defenses are doing, because they've done it. Stuff I've picked up in my three years of learning defenses, they already have the understanding," Mangiro said. "When we're watching film, they help me out. I'm looking at that one- or three-technique, and they break it down for me. It's very beneficial.
"Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia have done an excellent job since they came over. They've really impressed me."
They aren't the only ones, either. A bit unheralded when Penn State offered him a scholarship out of Hershey Area High School, Nelson has since drawn strong reviews as he completed his scholastic career and on the college practice field. He's now up to 6-5, 305.
"A big thing personally for me is last year my size wasn't that good. So I've gotten bigger, and that's going to help in the run game," Nelson said. "Coach Franklin is big on the run game. He's big on attacking on both offense and defense."
Of course, the 6-5, 335-pound Smith gets the lion's share of the attention, and deservedly so. If things continue to go as they have in his first couple of seasons, he could be in line for All-American consideration in addition to continuing to raise what already figures to be high NFL draft stock.
This year, as the most experienced player, Smith's intangibles will be spotlighted as well as his physical attributes.
"I'm still doing the same things I've been doing," Smith said. "We're all stepping up big. Mangiro's doing a good job as well, helping the younger guys with the playbook or technique. But nothing much has changed, other than you guys calling me the leader. I look at myself and Mangiro as the leaders. I'm definitely comfortable with that."
While Dieffenbach isn't on the field, players said his presence still was being felt, too.
"He's doing really well. He's still a leader on this offensive line. He's still leading film sessions this summer," Dowrey said.
Developing a quality offensive line doesn't usually happen overnight. While time is of the essence, the players are trying not to press too much.
"They know it takes a while, especially in the beginning. Thankfully, the guys that have been here had the spring to help us to get the offense down," Nelson said. "You're going to make mistakes, but you've got to be confident in making your calls what you do. In the beginning, you're going to get yelled at, but that's all part of the experience."
At the same time, the linemen are well-aware that they are on the spot. Fans and analysts have been pointing to the uncertainty on the offensive line as the potential weak link that could hamper Franklin's entire first season.
"We take it as a challenge, also as motivation," Mangiro said. "We're confident that we can go out and play, and we're looking forward to going out and proving people wrong."
Dowrey isn't getting defensive about it, no pun intended.
"The eye might be on us, but I've always felt you can't be a good offense without a good offensive line," Dowrey said. "Even when I was on defense, I felt that was one of the most important positions on the field. I still think that. Just because the eyes are on us now doesn't make it any different for me."