Penn State Nittany Lions: Mike Farrell

As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Saturday. Up today: Offensive linemen.

Projected starters: Adam Gress (6-foot-6, 320 pounds), John Urschel (6-3, 301), Ty Howle (6-0, 293), Miles Dieffenbach (6-3, 295) and Donovan Smith (6-5, 322)

Key losses: RT Mike Farrell and C Matt Stankiewitch

Next in line: The Nittany Lions will use a rotation again this season, with Angelo Mangiro as the next man up when it comes to the interior. At tackle, Eric Shrive and Garry Gilliam will compete for time. (Shrive is also versatile enough to play inside.)

Those three should see the most time besides the starters. Others who could contribute include Anthony Alosi, Wendy Laurent and true freshman Andrew Nelson.

What to expect: With another season under OL coach Mac McWhorter and strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, this line should take another step forward. Sure, the loss of Stankiewitch and Farrell hurt -- but Howle isn't that much of a downgrade and Smith is healthy for a change.

If the right tackle (Gress or Gilliam) can get off to a good start, this line will be better than last season. Smith could be the next great lineman at Penn State, and the interior is very strong. As a result, Zach Zwinak should see plenty of holes inside and the running game should improve.

This group isn't entirely bigger weight-wise -- Gress, Howle and Dieffenbach lost weight from last season -- but don't let that fool you. This group is stronger, literally, from last season and should push around opposing defensive linemen a bit more.

Recruiting trail: In-state product Noah Beh (Scranton, Pa./Scranton Prep) is the lone offensive lineman of the 2014 class right now, and he won't make an instant impact at Penn State. He's no more than 260 pounds, so he'll need some time to fill out.

On the plus side, he can also play on the defensive line. And he has a lot of upside. Next season, however, could be the "Year of the Offensive Lineman" for Penn State.

PSU could take about three prospects there, and it's already extended offers to more than a half-dozen players -- including the likes of ESPN Junior 300 prospects Sterling Jenkins (Pittsburgh, Pa./Baldwin), Tristen Hoge (Pocatello, Idaho/Highland), Ryan Bates (Warminster, Pa./Archbishop Wood) and Richie Petitbon (Washington, D.C./Gonzaga).

Best-case scenario: At least three linemen earn All-Big Ten honors, as Smith breaks out and earns a reputation as Levi Brown's heir apparent. The line takes great strides, further increasing the legend of the crazy-in-a-good-way strength coach. (He wears shorts in 20-degree temperatures, does the worm before some games and once licked the gym floor to fire up his players.) Fans can breathe easy in future years knowing the linemen are in the hands of Fitzgerald and McWhorter.

Worst-case scenario: The right tackle is a big letdown and creates havoc along the line, while Smith shows himself to be injury prone. The interior is still good, but the tackles struggle without Smith and don't give the quarterback much time to throw.

Top position question: How does Donovan Smith compare to Levi Brown? Well, the last staff sure thought they were similar -- because that was one of the Nittany Lions' big recruiting pitches.

Former PSU coach Bill Kenney playfully pulled aside Smith's seat during a recruiting trip in 2010, telling him it was Brown's seat. The two were both initially recruited to play the defensive line, and Kenney showed Smith some clips of the 2007 first-round NFL draft pick.

Brown, 29, is currently listed at 6-6 and 324 pounds. Smith is 6-5, 322. And Urschel previously hinted that Smith held more potential than second-round pick Stefen Wisniewski. So Smith certainly has the potential to follow in Brown's footsteps.

Springing ahead: 5 players to watch 

March, 7, 2013
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- With spring practice less than two weeks away, NittanyNation takes a look at five players fans should keep an eye on.

5. CB Da'Quan Davis, sophomore

Last year's stat line: Five tackles, one fumble recovery, three pass breakups

Looking ahead: Offensive line

January, 9, 2013
In the next week, NittanyNation will be taking a glance at different positions and their outlook for next season.

[+] EnlargeDonovan Smith
AP Photo/Kevin TanakaOffensive tackle Donovan Smith was expected to be a breakout star, but he didn't quite live up to his potential this season.
  • Who: A healthy Donovan Smith could be the star on this line for the next few years, but offensive guards John Urschel -- a first-team All-Big Ten selection -- and Miles Dieffenbach are also solid returning starters. There's a lot of depth here, with three returning backups who saw a lot of time on the field last season. Angelo Mangiro, Ty Howle and Adam Gress will likely compete for the openings left with the graduations of Matt Stankiewitch and Mike Farrell. Gress filled in when Smith was injured, but that right tackle position is probably the biggest question mark right now.
  • Strengths: There's a lot of options on the offensive line, and this remains one of the deeper positions for the Nittany Lions. Incoming freshmen Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson will add further quality depth, and the interior was definitely a strong point last season. Tailback Zach Zwinak often ran through holes paved by the guards, and that figures to be a big plan of the offensive attack again next season. Zwinak was almost never tackled in the backfield.
  • Weaknesses: This line has to get better when it comes to picking up the blitz. Ohio State really took advantage and often brought an extra rusher to completely disrupt Penn State's offensive rhythm. PSU was relatively average in pass protection -- finishing No. 51 in the nation in sacks allowed (1.75 per game) -- and filling the hole left by Stankiewitch will be a tall task.
  • Player to watch: Gress. There's more depth on the interior, and that makes RT Gress all the more important. He was penciled in as the spring starter last year but lost his starting job to Farrell and struggled at times. When Smith was injured, it was pretty evident the line wasn't the same -- and Gress' offseason should be closely watched to see what strides he can make.
  • Overall: Thanks to an improved strength-and-conditioning program, Penn State's offensive line appears to be on its way to becoming a stronger unit -- literally. Mangiro and Howle are more than competent enough to take over at center, but Stankiewitch was one of the best players in the nation at his position. The departures of Farrell and Stankiewitch could definitely lead to a few early growing pains on this offensive line, but Smith is primed for a breakout season. It'll be interesting to see what another year training with Craig Fitzgerald will do for this unit.

Position review: Complete overview 

December, 5, 2012
Penn StateAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State rebounded from an 0-2 start to finish 8-4 in 2012.

During the last two weeks, NittanyNation has reviewed each of Penn State's positions -- complete with summaries, grades, highlights and weaknesses.

For the final review, NittanyNation gives a quick-hitting overview of each position, along with each unit's unsung hero:

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Position review: Offensive line 

November, 30, 2012
Every day during the next two weeks, NittanyNation will take a closer look at each position and how Penn State fared over the course of the season.

Up today: Offensive line

Zach Zwinak
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Penn State offensive line saved its best for last, helping Zach Zwinak run wild on the Wisconsin defense.
There were some early growing pains, especially when Donovan Smith's injury forced Adam Gress and Mike Farrell to play musical chairs. But, by the end of the season, this unit evolved into a team strength -- one of Penn State's deepest positions that capitalized off the new strength program.

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Five most improved players since Week 1 

November, 13, 2012
Zach Zwinak, Daimion StaffordBruce Thorson/US PRESSWIREZach Zwinak was buried on Penn State's depth chart this summer, and now he's the Nittany Lions' best running back.

NittanyNation asked several players for their opinions and also looked at the tape to find Penn State's five most improved players since Week 1:

1. RB Zach Zwinak
He entered Week 1 as a player vying to become the fourth option at tailback: Bill Belton, Derek Day and Michael Zordich were on pace to get more playing time. But as injuries piled up, Zwinak made the most of his limited opportunities and quickly became Penn State's top tailback. He's rushed for at least 90 yards in five of the last seven contests. And in the last two games, he topped 130 yards. He's almost never tackled in the backfield and he even flashed some surprising speed against the Cornhuskers. Zwinak didn't just rise to become the top tailback on this offense. He's one of the team's best players.

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Notebook: Kinnick Stadium a challenge

October, 19, 2012
Iowa National AnthemStephen Mally/Icon SMIKinnick Stadium can be a tough environment for opponents.

Right tackle Mike Farrell still remembers the cold crawling up his arms, the 15-mph winds and the black-and-yellow crowd that buzzed like a nest of yellow jackets.

Penn State's last trip to Kinnick Stadium was more than two years ago, but Farrell remembers. The fifth-year senior watched 27 games since that 24-3 loss during a chilly night in Iowa City, but he can't forget.

"It was definitely energetic," Farrell said. "It was one of the more difficult places to play."

Farrell may be able to recall that matchup with ease, but even he likely can't remember the last time the Nittany Lions marched into Iowa's pink locker room and flew home winners. Farrell couldn't be blamed -- his brethren haven't won a game inside the Hawkeye State this century.

It's dropped four straight to Iowa on the road and last won there during Kirk Ferentz's 1999 rookie campaign -- a week after defensive end Pete Massaro celebrated his 10th birthday. Warm, cold, day, night; it hasn't mattered. Home or away, Iowa has claimed eight victories in the last 10 matchups.

"I've been away at Alabama, Ohio State, some places like that," Massaro said, "and I'd say Iowa's stadium is pretty vicious. It's definitely a tough place to play."

Bill O'Brien upped the volume this week on the practice loudspeakers, but he realized that wouldn't exactly mimic the Kinnick Stadium atmosphere. Short of inviting 75,000 screaming fans to stand 10 feet from the sidelines, louder hip-hop music had to make due.

"It's not going to be anything like what it's like Saturday night, so hopefully we can just give them a picture of it," O'Brien said. "It's a very tough environment, and they're playing well right now. They're a very tough football team. It's not going to be easy."

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Practice notebook: Belton still missing

September, 19, 2012
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Another open practice, another question at tailback.

Bill Belton missed the beginning of Wednesday's open practice, but Derek Day stretched and practiced with the running backs. Day is recovering from a separated shoulder, and he's still questionable for Saturday.

Day's recovery is ahead of Belton's, according to Bill O'Brien, but the coach still couldn't guarantee either would play Saturday. If neither tailback can go, Penn State will likely go with what worked last week: Michael Zordich and Curtis Dukes.

Zordich got the nod Wednesday with the first-team offense near the goal-line, while Dukes watched from the sideline.

"These guys get beat up during the season. They're running backs," O'Brien said Tuesday. "That's the nature of the position, so the next guy has got to be ready to go."

Zordich and Dukes took turns catching short passes from the quarterbacks and practiced a few drills with assistant coach Charles London. Zordich showed good hands and balance, but Dukes and Zach Zwinak struggled staying in-bounds on throws near the sideline.

On one play, Zwinak caught the ball on the run and slipped while he cut -- leaving about a foot-long divot near the sideline.

Open tryouts: While practice was under way, about 70 students gathered inside neighboring Holuba Hall in hopes to make the football team -- likely as part of the scout team.

O'Brien said he hoped to find a few defensive backs or linemen, but it's clear he wouldn't turn down a kicker. With Matt Marcincin's departure last week -- and Sam Ficken's struggles -- Penn State could certainly use another place-kicker.

Strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald timed some players, while another man told the potential walk-ons the theme of the day was "follow directions."

Injuries: Left tackle Donovan Smith also did not appear during the 30-minute open window of Wednesday practice.

O'Brien said if Smith couldn't practice Tuesday, he likely wouldn't play Saturday. Mike Farrell and Adam Gress took over at the tackle spots in his absence.

True freshman linebacker Nyeem Wartman was not dressed and limped with a large ice pack on his knee. Even O'Brien didn't try to hide the severity of his injury Tuesday.

"I wouldn't expect him back for a while," he said.

Kickin' Ficken: Ficken made his first field goal attempt in practice from about 37 yards but missed his second a hair right. He nailed his third.

"I have belief in Sam," O'Brien said Tuesday.

Kevin DiSanto converted his pair of attempts, although they were about 10 yards shorter than Ficken's tries.

Splitting up: Tight ends Kyle Carter and Paul Jones play at a lot of spots as f-tight ends, but it was interesting to see them both split wide -- together -- on Wednesday.

Jones caught a few good passes Wednesday, although the offense kept it simple while the media was watching. McGloin and Steven Bench didn't attempt a pass over 10 yards, but Jones did manage to haul in an over-the-middle pass that was thrown slightly below his waist.

Practice notebook: Zwinak at No. 1

September, 12, 2012
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Zach Zwinak, you're up.

With Bill Belton limited because of a sprained left ankle -- seemingly wrapped with a roll of tape -- and Derek Day nursing a shoulder injury, Penn State reached down deep on the depth chart for Wednesday evening's practice.

A fourth-string tailback in April, Zwinak worked with the starters during a 30-minute practice session open to the media. Zwinak has just six career carries for nine yards.

Belton and Day were both dressed but did not participate in contact drills, and it's not yet clear whether they'll play in Saturday's game against Navy. If they can't go, it now appears Zwinak will be the No. 1 -- and fullback Michael Zordich will back him up.

Zordich practiced with the second-string, while Curtis Dukes watched from the sideline. Even with the injuries, it seems as if the 245-pound Dukes still can't climb into the starting spot -- despite leading all returning rushers with 237 yards and a 5.8 yard-per-carry average.

Shawney Kersey's departure: Without Kersey, true freshman Trevor Williams and redshirt junior Brandon Moseby-Felder split time at the outside role.

Williams is listed ahead of Moseby-Felder on the depth chart, but Moseby-Felder brings some much-needed experience to the receiving corps. Neither really differentiated himself during the 30 minutes open to the media -- but Williams will likely get the nod.

New look at TE: For the second straight week, former quarterback Paul Jones did not wear a red shirt at practice. Instead, he caught balls from Matt McGloin and new No. 2 quarterback Steven Bench.

He was split wide on the media's way out and dropped one pass about 15 yards downfield. He clapped his hands, let an expletive fly and then jogged back to the huddle.

Offensive line: Left tackle Donovan Smith was not in pads and did not practice Wednesday.

His absence in parts of the Ohio game was easy to see, and he will be missed if he cannot return in time. He was not listed on the injury report, but Bill O'Brien said Tuesday Smith has some "bumps and bruises."

Mike Farrell replaced him at left tackle, and Adam Gress started on the right.

Kickin' Ficken: Sam Ficken opened the practice by attempting five field goals between 30 and 40 yards -- and he made them all.

Yes, the same kicker who made just 1-for-5 against the Cavaliers was perfect at practice. But, as O'Brien said Tuesday, consistency is the key with Ficken.

Other injuries: Defensive end Pete Massaro and linebacker Nyeem Wartman were also not in pads.

Massaro said he's battling a shoulder injury -- in addition to a previously torn ACL that's still healing -- while Wartman has issues with his knee. Deion Barnes becomes the unquestioned starter with Massaro's injury.

Tight ends: Kyle Carter is obviously the f-tight end but Matt Lehman practiced as the starter at the y-tight end spot, ahead of Garry Gilliam.

Lehman's seen more time since a touchdown grab Week 1, and the Lions practiced one play with Carter, Lehman and Jones lined up -- definitely not something that was expected in the preseason.

Scouting report: Several NFL scouts were in attendance Wednesday, and most appeared to be watching defense.

The Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers were among the teams represented.

Notebook: Underdog role OK with PSU 

September, 7, 2012
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Michael Zordich gave a slight shrug when he was told Virginia was favored by 10.5 points earlier this week.

"Underdog pretty much means nothing to us," the fullback said. "I think we've been there for awhile now."

Michael Mauti also deflected any talk about motivation because, well, he didn't even know the Cavaliers were favored.

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Offense seeking balance

September, 6, 2012
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien didn't have to pause and search for an answer when asked about this week's offensive game plan. To O'Brien, the solution to Saturday's maladies seemed obvious.

"We've got to be more balanced," the first-year head coach said. "That starts with me."

He didn't walk through the south tunnel Saturday hoping to pass nearly seven out of 10 plays. And, he said, he's not looking to do that against Virginia. He wants to return to the football basics; he wants to run more.

But there's a hitch in this week's scheme: Trainers have held Bill Belton out of practice, and O'Brien might be forced to start a fifth-year senior, Derek Day, who's carried the ball 15 times in his career.

USC transfer Silas Redd reached that mark eight times last season.

"For any QB to be successful, you have to run the football," Matt McGloin admitted.

O'Brien called 48 passes to just 22 runs last week. Even by New England Patriots standards, that's high. Tom Brady surpassed the 48-attempt plateau just once last season in a 24-20 loss to the New York Giants.

New England passed about 58 percent of the time last season; Penn State passed in 68.5 percent of its plays last week. To add some perspective, even pass-happy Houston would've called about five more running plays than PSU, based on last year's numbers.

So, O'Brien appeared sincere this week when he said he'd better emphasize his stable of inexperienced running backs. He praised his offensive line and remarked about his confidence in Day and those other tailbacks. But, Virginia coach Mike London didn't appear to expect balance.

"I think they won't depart too far from what they showed last week, showing what their identity is," London said Thursday.

Short, quick pass plays defined the Nittany Lions' offense when it hustled the ball downfield in the first half. Then again, it also defined an offense that sputtered in the second half.

"We felt in the first half we were kind of showing the identity we wanted to have," offensive tackle Mike Farrell said, "but in the second half we faded a little bit. So it's been a priority this week for us to improve and play a full game."

Tight end Kyle Carter said his team hoped to add another dimension to its attack by focusing more on deep throws. McGloin didn't complete a pass longer than 25 yards, and most attempts weren't thrown farther than 15.

At practice Wednesday, quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher stood close to McGloin while he launched a handful of 40-yard tosses. Allen Robinson caught a perfect ball in stride, while a slower Matt Zanellato found himself two steps behind another.

McGloin wouldn't say what he was expecting for Charlottesville. He refused to say whether, when he looks back on this season, Penn State might have more passes than rushes.

"Right now, it's simple," McGloin said. "We're going to do what we have to do to win. If that means we throw it 10 times, we'll throw it 10 times. If we have to run it 100 times, we'll run it 100."

Kyle Carter becoming a favorite target

September, 6, 2012
Kyle Carter isn't sure where he'd be without Bill O'Brien. But he has a few guesses -- struggling to gain an extra 20 pounds, likely standing on the sideline and certainly not grabbing six catches in the opener.

That's why, the redshirt freshman said, he was so grateful when Penn State announced O'Brien's hiring.

"I was probably one of the most happy people in the world at the time," Carter said.

The former coaching staff asked tight ends to hit 265 pounds -- Carter weighs 247 -- and utilized only one player. As a redshirt freshman, Carter didn't have to study math to understand the odds of starting leaned in favor of redshirt junior Garry Gilliam.

But a new coaching staff offered a new start and offensive system -- and, most importantly, a new chance to impress. After all, he was battling to move up from the fourth-string.

A few days into spring ball, Carter approached the first-year head coach inside the Lasch Building. O'Brien told told him he saw something, a glint of talent, that Carter could have a big role if he worked. He took that broad conversation to heart.

"I still had a lot to do," Carter said. "I wasn't the No. 1 tight end. I knew I had a lot of work to do to get in a position where they'd even be using me in the games."

Carter was named the the starter at f-tight end in time for April's Blue-White Game. He didn't relent. During his off-time, Carter practiced routes with Matt McGloin. He caught passes from Paul Jones. And he worked with Steven Bench.

That effort spilled into the preseason. Linebacker Glenn Carson said the 6-foot-3 tight end boasted the most impressive camp, and his teammates raved about his penchant for one-handed grabs.

"Yeah, I still remember one from preseason," offensive tackle Mike Farrell said. "It was either a two-minute drive or a hurry-up drive, and on the final play, he made a great one-handed catch in the end zone for a touchdown as time expired."

Added safety Malcolm Willis: "When you're in practice, you'll see him catch at least two or three balls one-handed."

Carter, who made his first career start Saturday, became McGloin's No. 2 target behind Allen Robinson. He finished with a half-dozen catches for 74 yards, while Robinson pulled down nine receptions for 97 yards.

Of course, he lined up at tight end -- but he also split out wide and even played out of the backfield. He's never before traveled to a road game, but McGloin said he'll be looking out for the versatile No. 2 target against Virginia.

"He'll be a big part of our offense," McGloin said. "I'll try to get him the ball a lot. I'm definitely going to try to get him the ball this week and have him make plays for us."

Carter couldn't be happier to hear that.

Derek Day ready for more carries 

September, 5, 2012
Derek Day felt the snap. He knew something --- ligaments, tendons, bones -- broke inside of him as if it were made of plastic.

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/MCTIf Bill Belton (above) is unable to play Saturday due to injury, Derek Day might earn his first career start.
The senior at Central Dauphin High School thought his career might be over. The tailback tried to carry a pile of blue-helmeted defenders an extra yard or two before someone hammered his ankle. He couldn't return to the huddle, couldn't even stand, with a broken tibia and fibula.

"Honestly, I see that as a blessing in disguise," Day said Wednesday, looking back on that injury in Nov. 2007. "I don't know if I'd be at Penn State if that didn't happen."

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Notebook: Tuesday practice 

August, 28, 2012
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Matt McGloin dropped back and rehearsed some draws early Tuesday evening while quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher barked some encouragement.

"Bam!" Fisher yelled when the football hit Bill Belton's stomach. "C'mon! Good!"

Bill O'Brien asked the media to leave soon after those positional drills, but NittanyNation still found some highlights to the short-lived open practice:

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Six PSU starting spots still up for grabs 

August, 27, 2012
Penn State released its Week 1 depth chart Monday, and six starting spots remain up for grabs.

A closer look at each battle:

Right tackle: Mike Farrell vs. Adam Gress

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