UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — They were roommates last year, so Penn State football teammates Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey got to spend their spring semester planning for a difficult position switch. After practices or classes, they would come home and go over the playbook. They would use each other’s strengths to supplement the other’s weaknesses and count on each other’s advice to best learn how to be an offensive guard.
About six months later, Penn State is depending on these former defensive linemen to show what they have learned. Dowrey and Gaia might have been seen as added depth at first, but with the spring knee injury to guard Miles Dieffenbach, both are likely to see considerable playing time.
“They’re right in the mix to be out there,” offensive line coach Herb Hand said. “We’re expecting that and counting on them.”
Dowrey made the switch a month or two before spring practice. He actually had considered telling new coach James Franklin he wanted to play as an offensive linemen when Franklin called him into his office and told Dowrey he would like him to switch to that position. Gaia was driving back to Penn State on spring break when he received a call from the coaching staff. They told Gaia they wanted him to be an offensive guard, too.
It’s not like they were switching from defensive line to punt-returner. Both played offensive line in high school. Gaia was recruited as an offensive lineman by every school that recruited him except for Penn State and Texas A&M, he said.
Still, the body develops and acts differently as a defensive lineman than as an offensive lineman.
“I’ve been playing strictly defense for the past two years, and everything is forward,” Dowrey said. “You’ve got weight on your hand in your stance. You’re coming out forward and you’re going fast. On the offensive line, you’ve got to have a more balanced stance. You’re back on your heels going laterally a lot.”
In addition to learning from each other, Dowrey said center Angelo Mangiro and Dieffenbach have been helpful.
The eccentric Hand, well-known for his appearance on the Food Network show “Chopped” and his Twitter football remix to “Baby Got Back,” also has provided guidance. His mantras for his offensive linemen are about exactly how you would imagine them, given his personality.
“We have to make sure that we know that we know that we know,” Hand said. “It’s not enough to just think you know, you’ve got to know that you know that you know.”
He also talks about “how-tos” and “who-tos.” The former expression deals with learning the playbook and individual blocking techniques. The latter is about personnel. Hand and Penn State must produce an effective lineup that works together. The lone returning starter or player with a significant backup role on the offensive line is tackle Donovan Smith.
Though Dowrey and Gaia are new to the position, their in-game experience levels are similar to the players they are competing with in fall camp.
Dowrey and Gaia not only said they’ll be ready by the time the season starts, they say they’ve felt comfortable in their new roles for a while.
“I think when I first got out there, definitely there was a lot coming at me,” Dowrey said.
“You go scheme, technique, everything. You just try to keep up. … Toward the end of spring ball, though, I started understanding the offense a little bit better. I started understanding that side of the ball.”
•NOTE — Former Rutgers player Eric LeGrand and former Penn State player Adam Taliaferro will be the honorary captains when the Scarlet Knights play their first Big Ten game against the Nittany Lions Sept. 13. LeGrand’s spinal cord injury in 2010 left him paralyzed below the shoulders. He is still in a wheelchair, but has since graduated and now works as a radio analyst. Taliaferro, a New Jersey native like LeGrand, injured his spinal cord making a tackle in 2000. He, too, was left paralyzed but has since made a full recovery.
Mark Dent: email@example.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.