UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- They're all offensive tackles, but little else binds them. Donovan Smith is uber-talented, a likely pro prospect. Garry Gilliam is a newcomer to the position and has decided to stop playing at Penn State after this season despite having a year of eligibility left. Eric Shrive is a former five-star recruit who hasn't progressed as expected. Adam Gress has been the example of slow and steady progress.
And perhaps more than any other position for Penn State, the weekly competition at tackle has turned into a battle in which the starting spot is truly up for grabs even this late in the season.
At right tackle, for instance, Gilliam started the first two games before Gress started the next four. They rotated for the next three games and now Gress has started the past two. During one of the games Gilliam started, Gress started at left tackle in place of Smith. And then there's Shrive. He made his first career start last Saturday as a third tackle.
The competition for playing time illustrates their need for versatility. Gress has been able to start so often in part because he can play on both sides of the line. When Smith started struggling in the middle of the season, Gress was able to fill a need.
"I honestly think that I've played it enough that whenever I get put there in the game or in practice or whatever, I practiced enough on both sides that it feels comfortable," Gress said. "It feels completely natural."
Shrive, throughout his career, has switched between tackle and guard. He has never found a permanent position at which to start, though, and couldn't come out on top of the competition for one of the coveted starting spots this season either.
"I'm sure he would tell you his playing career maybe hasn't worked out exactly the way he saw it coming out of high school," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. "But I tell you what, he's brought a toughness to our practice field. He's worked hard, accepted his role every week. It was good to get him that start last week."
The competition has been beneficial for the Penn State line, particularly in the past few weeks as the Nittany Lions have run the ball more often and for greater gains (729 yards in the past three games) than at the beginning of the year.
O'Brien is so passionate about his offensive line that he gets defensive discussing them. On his radio show Thursday night, according to reports, he even called out Purdue coach Darrell Hazell regarding his line. He said at his news conference Tuesday that he has been satisfied with their play and has been all season.
"I think that the offensive line has played well all year," O'Brien said. "They've played tough. "They've done everything that we've asked them to do and they've been fun to coach."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.