All of this bodes well for a unit that returns three starters and boasts some quality depth. Howle and Gress both saw plenty of action in 2012, and guard/tackle Eric Shrive is still around as well. That will help, as the Lions seek to replace All-Big Ten center Matt Stankiewitch and versatile tackle Mike Farrell.
Garry Gilliam? He converted from tight end to tackle during winter conditioning, but has been “a little limited” in spring drills, according to Gress. Gilliam has a strained right calf muscle.
As a whole, though, everybody has settled in. If in '12 everyone was learning a new offense and new coaching staff on the fly, that is no longer the case.
“Spring ball has gone a lot more smoothly than last year,” Urschel said. “We aren't starting from Ground Zero.”
“We're already running things now,” Gress said, “that we didn't put in until training camp last year.”
No telling how that will affect the quarterback competition, which right now includes sophomore Steven Bench and junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson and will in the future also include prize recruit Christian Hackenberg. But the O-line looks solid -- especially Urschel, an All-Big Ten first-team choice by the coaches and all-conference second-teamer according to the media in 2012. As scholarly as he is athletic, he looms as a team leader and potential captain.
“This is my last year playing football at Penn State,” he said. “I want to make sure I do everything I can to make sure my team has a successful year.”
Donovan Smith and Miles Dieffenbach return at left tackle and left guard, respectively, with Howle stepping in at center and Gress at the other tackle spot. And while Stankiewitch was a terrific player (as well as a friend of Urschel's), Urschel was unrestrained in his praise of Howle, who saw time at guard off the bench last year.
“I don't think we'll have any problems with him playing at center,” Urschel said.
“Ty's taking all the reps with the 'ones,' ” Gress said. “He's been really solid in there. … He's ready to go. He knows what he's doing. I think he'll easily slide into that spot.”
Gress was singled out as a workout warrior last year by head coach Bill O'Brien and strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald, and that remains the case. He said he has packed on more good weight, going from 312 in '12 to 320 or 321 now, and he is intent on making “every practice better than the one before that.”
His particular focus is pass protection. Last year, when he usually rotated into games at right tackle (with Farrell then swinging over to the left side, thus given Smith a blow), he admitted having “a couple rough plays, here and there” in that phase of the game.
“I decided in the offseason it's something I had to fix,” he said, “and I think it's progressed tremendously.”
Offensive line coach Mac McWhorter has always stressed that his guys must be versatile, and O'Brien told reporters at the beginning of spring drills that all the linemen must know how to snap the ball. That's beneficial in case of an injury, and also gives each of them a greater understanding of the entire operation.
The greater understanding at this point is that the line could be a strength of this team.