Shrive, offensive line having fun

UNIVERSITY PARK – Eric Shrive might, at first glance, appear to be one of the more serious members of Penn State’s football team.

He’s a fifth-year senior on track to graduate in December. He’s fighting for playing time along the offensive line. And he’s been a major force behind Penn State’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a team charity that hopes to raise its one-millionth dollar this year.

Yet he’s not above pranking teammates like center Ty Howle.

“Yesterday, Shrive got me good,” Howle said at Penn State’s media day last week. “I’m parked at dinner, and he throws a parking ticket on my windshield. I’m freaking out, I got a parking ticket and I’m the only one.

“I open it up, and it says, ‘Gotcha!’ I was 100 percent flustered, but he got me,” Howle said.

It’s fun like that across the Nittany Lions’ offensive line, a group that entered Bill O’Brien’s first coaching season as unknown and inexperienced, but one that returns three returning starters – four if converted tight end Garry Gilliam is counted. And, save for redshirt sophomore Donovan Smith, they’re all either juniors or seniors.

That kind of camaraderie is important, offensive line coach Mac McWhorter said, and their working together figures to be even more important as they block for either true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg or junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson.

None of the offensive linemen questioned at media day gave any hint of a quarterback preference, but instead traded one-liners in front of the television cameras and then behind them when given a chance.

“I think they do enjoy each other a lot, too,” McWhorter said. “You can see they’re ragging on each other, hanging together, I’ve never had a good offensive line without that, and that’s 40 percent of the offensive lineup that has to play as one.”

The leader is right guard John Urschel, whose postgraduate math accomplishments are well documented – he’s teaching another class this fall – but there’s more to this line than just him. There’s Shrive competing with fifth-year senior and fellow Lift-for-Life leader Adam Gress at right tackle, the fifth-year senior Howle at center, Smith at left tackle and a member of the “Supa Six” group whose decision to stay in the wake of NCAA sanctions helped keep the team together, Gilliam at possibly any of the spots, and redshirt junior Miles Dieffenbach at left guard.

Dieffenbach, the son of longtime University of Pittsburgh tennis coach George Dieffenbach, might be the most fun of all.

“They’re very high character guys and tough guys. Smart. They communicate well and there’s some characters up there,” O’Brien said. “Dieffenbach, he’s got another career as, I won’t say it, but maybe Saturday Night Live or something like that. But he keeps his sense of humor in the room.”

Dieffenbach doesn’t quite think he’s ready for prime time on the stage, saying he doesn’t do impressions, but instead prefers to keep things loose with a quick joke here or there. The trait clearly came in handy during the trying times of 2012.

“I think it could be a word … oustandish. Camp can become a grind, so you do things to get guys happy,” Dieffenbach said. “But I’ve never done a coach O’Brien impersonation, just some other stuff that’s good in moderation. You don’t want things to get out of hand.”

There’s still plenty of competition for playing time this year, it’s just coming from a more experienced group. Urschel started every game last year, Dieffenbach started all but the finale against Wisconsin, Smith started nine games at left tackle, Gress started three at right tackle, and Gilliam started eight at tight end.

“I believe in a top five starting lineup and then the next best ones get in the game, as long as we can win with them,” McWhorter said. “Last year was unusual because of the one returning starter, so we had to build depth right away and the only way you can do that is by playing. Earlier this season, you’ll probably see one or two more guys rolling in early, and hope they progress more and more.”

Even though Howle is only a first-year starter, replacing Matt Stankiewicz, he felt the same responsibility to play hard on the field and enjoy life properly off of it.

“The offensive line is a very important part of the atmosphere,” Howle said. “A lot of people say on offense, it can only go as far as the people up front can take you, and we’re taking on that burden ourselves.”