UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When Penn State teammates and coaches talk about offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach, they talk about timing. This quality can be applied to football things, like knowing when to speak up and how to properly finish a specific drill, and it can be applied to the lighter moments. When the occasion calls for humor, Dieffenbach can tell a joke. What he says is actually funny.
"Every team needs a Miles Dieffenbach," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said.
Linemen like Dieffenbach present a study in polarity when it comes to expectations vs. reality: Usually considered the most anonymous players on the field, they often are the most interesting.
At Penn State, guard John Urschel is a math genius. North Carolina-bred center Ty Howle is known as the "Swamp Man." Eclecticism is everything, and Dieffenbach adds plenty.
Dieffenbach actually might be the best table-tennis player in Pennsylvania. This summer, he and teammate Jesse Della Valle went to the Keystone State Games, a summer contest open for Pennsylvanians to compete against each other. Dieffenbach won the table-tennis tournament.
He always has excelled at a variety of activities, particularly the racket sports. Son of retired longtime Pitt tennis coach George Dieffenbach, he was hitting a tennis ball by the time he was 3 years old.
One of the best ways he could spend time with his father growing up was through tennis, so Dieffenbach took lessons with him. He started competing, too. Dieffenbach played in USTA tournaments and had a district ranking through the 12-and-under age group. He stopped playing competitively at age 14.
"I kind of grew out of the tennis body," Dieffenbach said. "I was pretty big for the tennis court."
George Dieffenbach always wanted his son and his daughter, Sarah, to get proper amounts of water and rest and have a good diet. This wasn't some grand plan to turn them into top athletes but rather to promote healthy habits as they grew up. He also had his son take a Flintstones vitamin every day, thinking it would help him achieve his ultimate height.
"I would take one, too, to help convince him to do it," George Dieffenbach said. "I ended up 5-11. He's 6-4."
Dieffenbach grew so large and so quickly he was not only too big for tennis but too big for Guyasuta little league football by the last year he was eligible to play. His size, though, was perfectly suited for the football field when he reached high school.
At Fox Chapel, he played everywhere on the line. On offense, he was a center, guard and tackle. On defense, he played nose tackle. He started on the varsity as a sophomore, and, by his senior year, he was all-WPIAL, all-state and an Under Armour All-American. He didn't allow a sack his junior or senior year.
It was before his senior year that he began to think seriously about college. Rated as one of the top linemen in the nation, he could have gone almost anywhere in this part of the country.
Pitt seemed to be an obvious choice. His father coached there, and his sister played tennis there. Dieffenbach once said he grew up hating Penn State.
But the recruiting process changed his mind. After receiving offers from and visiting several schools, he put together a system in which he ranked his top schools on a scale of one to 10, considering categories such as education, distance from home, the head coach, the position coach and the student body. When he added everything up, Penn State was No. 1. Pitt was No. 2. He decided to go to Penn State.
When Dieffenbach arrived, his impressive credentials didn't lead to any playing time his first two years. When O'Brien's staff arrived, they decreed the best players would play. It didn't matter their class or who had played the previous years.
In 2012, Dieffenbach started 11 of 12 games. George Dieffenbach acknowledged that the first two seasons had been a test for his son, a struggle, but that he worked to get his break and has enjoyed every bit of playing since.
"Whenever you're liking a situation you're in," George Dieffenbach said, "you can see the funny side of life and be happy about it."
This fall, Dieffenbach became a favorite among Penn State fans for his personality on the ESPN series "Training Days." He introduced the Salt Game, asking players trivia-esque questions. If they got them wrong, he would shake salt on their tongues.
That personality, coupled with his improvement (offensive line coach Mac McWhorter raves about his consistency) has catapulted him into leader status and, more generally, most-likable status. Dieffenbach won the team's commitment award in the spring, is well-regarded for his faith and can still cram a few games of tennis into his schedule. Not only was he the state table-tennis champion this summer, he took a tennis class at Penn State. He won the championship for that class, too, finding a way to excel in yet another moment.
"There's a time and a place for everything," Dieffenbach said.
• Game: Penn State (3-1) vs. Indiana (2-2).
• When: noon Saturday.
• Where: Bloomington, Ind.
• TV: Big Ten Network.
Game: Penn State (3-1) vs. Indiana (2-2).
When: noon Saturday.
Where: Bloomington, Ind.
TV: Big Ten Network.
• Game: WVU (3-2, 1-1) vs. Baylor (3-0, 0-0).
• When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
• Where: Waco, Texas.
TV: Fox Sports 1.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.