New weight program alters Lions' line

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien and his staff put together a new workout routine for the offensive linemen that focuses on a balance between flexibility and strength. Matthew O'Haren/Icon SMI

Miles Dieffenbach's shoes dragged across the sidewalk like sandpaper after the spring's first weightlifting session. He couldn't pick up his feet, couldn't pick up his pace — but could feel his every muscle ache.

"It was a different kind of soreness," Penn State's offensive guard said, "a different kind of lift."

And it's a different kind of offensive line.

Coach Bill O'Brien and his staff have emphasized a new workout routine this offseason, one that has made walking to classes a little harder on those linemen. The system focuses on a balance of flexibility and strength, treating linemen not just as bodybuilders, but as athletes.

Bench-presses and squats have replaced machines, and the offensive linemen are lifting in more of an Olympic style than a military one, which relies on more reps at lower weights.

As a result, this year's offensive line will undoubtedly have an altered look from years past. Most starters said they've gained between four and 10 pounds since the spring.

"I'm very eager, very interested to see what we're going to do," center Matt Stankiewitch said. "We're doing a lot of stuff that makes you get better."

Defensive end Sean Stanley paused when asked if that meant the line was better than last season. He shifted weight from one leg to another before settling on, "I think they could be."

"Yes" wasn't an expected answer at this point, anyway. Not with four new starters on the line, a thicker playbook to memorize and little time to pick up on teammates' tendencies.

The real answer people outside the program are hoping for is that this program will eventually lead to an improved offensive line and a better offense.

The offensive line has understandably been overlooked this offseason, with all the focus on a new receiving corps and a different running back. Most linemen sprawled out on a silver bench during media day, as they watched cameras surround the lone starting returner -- Stankiewitch -- while they simply leaned back and chatted about the heat and afternoon practice.

The Nittany Lions' offensive hopes have been pinned on O'Brien and his primary weapons, tailback Bill Belton and quarterback Matt McGloin. But their success, or failure, starts with this line. If Belton can't find a running lane, he can't be effective. If McGloin is pushed outside the pocket, his completion percentage will suffer. And so will the offense.

"The line's doing some different things now," defensive tackle Jordan Hill added. "They're liking what they're doing."

Dieffenbach and offensive guard John Urschel didn't hesitate in acknowledging their desire to excel, even without a bowl game tied to the end of a season like a carrot on a stick. But they performed the two-step with reporters when it came to choosing the better-working system -- this or last year's. They hemmed and hawed at the slightest sign of choosing favorites, as if they were ordered to pick their favorite parent.

"Both programs have their advantages," Dieffenbach replied. "But this is definitely a good program."

"So, what one do you prefer?" a reporter asked.

"I mean, each has their advantages. I love the old staff; I love the new staff," Dieffenbach said. "It's just different."

"Different" has become the underlying theme of the offseason. At a recent open practice, offensive linemen touched their toes and stretched while hip-hop music blared from six tan Penn State speakers. Some players bobbed their heads slightly to DJ Khaled's "All I Do Is Win." And some coaches threw up their hands during the chorus: And every time I step in the building/everybody hands go up.

But even with all the new looks -- the music, the staff, the lifting and the practices -- one element has clearly remained unchanged.

"We're shooting for every game to win," Stankiewitch said. "It's just like any season."