Though the quarterback battle between juco transfer Tyler Ferguson and Rivals.com five-star true freshman Christian Hackenberg will likely dominate headlines leading into the Nittany Lions' preseason camp and first game, a real factor that could help either will be literally right in front of them the whole time.
In an interview with Penn State offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, posted earlier this week at Penn State's YouTube site, the veteran assistant made some strong proclamations about the caliber of unit he'll be mentoring this season.
"This group is probably as good of a group as I've ever had cumulatively, as far as being really good players, great character kids and really good students," McWhorter said. "Our offensive line as a unit this past spring had a 3.1 cumulative GPA. I've been around some really good students in the offensive line and I don't think I've ever had close to that. So, they're a fun group to come to work with every day.
"They're great character kids and they come to work every day with a great attitude, which allows you to get better and better and better."
A quick look at Penn State's summer depth chart reveals the source of McWhorter's confidence.
Working from right tackle to left, McWhorter sees senior after senior, as opposed to a season ago in which McWhorter was greeted by just one returning senior starter in Matt Stankiewitch. Despite the loss of Stankiewitch and fellow senior Mike Farrell to graduation, McWhorter said in the interview that he has six players returning who started at least one game last season.
Led by anchor John Urschel at right tackle, coming off a first-team All-Big Ten season in which he started all 12 games for the Nittany Lions, Penn State also has an 11-game starter in Miles Dieffenbach at left guard, Donovan Smith at left tackle with nine starts, Ty Howle at center, and Adam Gress and Garry Gilliam, both of whom will battle with Eric Shrive for the only true position up for grabs along the line this preseason.
"Eric Shrive, he is really battling to try to win a job and certainly he's a tremendous factor for us, whether he wins a starting job or not, he's a really good player and had a good spring. He gave us depth last year and should be a big factor this year," McWhorter said. "Then Adam Gress, the other senior who started probably a little over half the season last year and had a good spring.
"Garry, I'm really excited about him. He started spring, we moved him from tight end, he was 265 pounds and now he's 305 and he's got tremendous athletic numbers. He is, I think, will be a tremendous factor for us. He's battling for a starting job. So, we've got some real good competition going there, along with some returning guys that are pretty well established, so it's a good situation right now."
Of course, beyond the six offensive linemen who started games last season, McWhorter's insistence on rotating in backups throughout the 2012 season is expected to pay dividends this season, he said.
"A guy like Angelo Mangiro played a lot last year and he's playing all three positions inside right now. Then Anthony Alosi played a little last year and he's stepping it up and had a real good offseason and good spring," McWhorter said. "We've got some depth and it certainly helps because you're not just one injury away from catastrophe. Then, obviously early in the season when it's hot, you want to play more guys so they don't get just worn down.
"I've always had the philosophy to play as many as are possibly ready to play for now and the future. So, we're in a pretty good place right now."
With nine total offensive linemen who have considerable experience from the 2012 season, it's a situation McWhorter is looking forward to working with when preseason camp begins for the Nittany Lions on August 5.