Penn State players adjusting to uncommon position switch

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — How to best describe the struggle of playing offensive line? Former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien last year related the position to chaos, saying it was like experiencing 100 car crashes in a game and 1,000 car crashes in a practice.

So imagine being thrust onto the offensive line two days before the start of Penn State’s spring football practices. That’s what happened with Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey, former defensive linemen. Or, better yet, imagine the case of former tight end Albert Hall. He’s 6 feet 4 and 245 pounds. Most every other offensive lineman at Penn State is closer to 300 pounds.

Some position changes — think Bill Belton from wide receiver to running back two years ago — are done with the thought that a certain player is a more natural fit somewhere else. Others, like the moves this year, are done for the purpose of addressing team needs.

“It’s hard to say, ‘This guy should be playing this position,’ or ‘This guy should be playing that position’ based on what we’ve seen and evaluated,” coach James Franklin said. “We basically look at the overall roster positions of strength, positions of weakness, based on numbers, based on talent.”

Moving to the offensive line generally is not easy. Even Franklin admitted he felt bad for what Gaia and Dowrey must be going through as they endure the switch.

“We put them in a tough position,” he said. “Two days before spring ball starts I say, ‘You’re offensive line. Go at it.’ They’re tough guys and smart guys but that’s a tough position.”

The good thing is Gaia, Dowrey and Hall have the personalities of players ready for such a change, or at least the ability to be as ready as possible.

Hall played high school football in Warwick, N.Y., for coach James Sciarra. He was never a big kid but played center his first year with Sciarra. He soon switched to tight end and, because of Sciarra’s offense, was actually more of a wide receiver his senior year of high school.

“He would have played anywhere for me,” Sciarra said. “He actually tried to play anywhere. He tried to talk me into playing quarterback. It didn’t happen.”

Hall was lightly recruited. He had offers from Division III schools throughout New York and New Jersey, but few Division I schools were biting. A performance as a wide receiver at a 7-on-7 game prompted Penn State’s interest in him as a walk-on.

Before Hall left for his first year at Penn State, Sciarra told him that once he got into a major college’s weight-training program, he’d be an offensive tackle within three years. Hall laughed.

Dowrey, 6-3 and 303 pounds, and Gaia, 6-3 and 280 pounds, are more of a natural fit at offensive line. Gaia was a highly-rated offensive guard at the Gilman School in Maryland. Dowrey started as an offensive guard or center at Virginia’s John Handley High School for four years.

“Although he’s a pretty big fella, he moves well, and I don’t mean just straight ahead,” Handley coach Tony Rayburn said of Dowrey. “He has to bend and block and have flexible ankles.”

He’s no stranger to sudden position changes, either. Because of depth issues and inexperience, Dowrey had to play fullback the second half of his senior season in high school.

This spring, Franklin has been particularly vocal about Hall. On the first day of practice, he singled him out for his effort and leadership. None of his comments were surprising news to Sciarra, who said Hall’s fondness for Penn State extends beyond football. Before O’Brien offered him a walk-on position, he said Hall was already close to deciding Penn State anyway because he liked the school, football or not.

• NOTE — Sophomore tight end Adam Breneman will be held out of the remainder of Penn State’s spring practices with a bone bruise, a source confirmed Wednesday. Breneman had an MRI in which everything turned up clear, according to the source, adding that the injury is not believed to be serious and that Breneman could play in a game if he had the injury during the regular season. As a freshman last season, Breneman had 15 receptions for 186 yards and three touchdowns.

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.


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