- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's not recklessly hyperbolic to label Adam Gress as the best story of Penn State's offseason.
When you break it down, it actually becomes rather obvious. Many would argue that the hiring of Craig Fitzgerald to revamp and lead Penn State's strength and conditioning program was the single most important move head coach Bill O'Brien has made on the job.
No position group benefited more from Fitzgerald's arrival than the Nittany Lions offensive line, which left O'Brien "pleasantly surprised" in spring practice. And within the offensive line, no player generated more praise this spring than Gress, who went from anonymous special teamer to strong candidate to start at tackle this season. Gress, a 6-6, 310-pound junior, appeared as the team's starting right tackle on the post-spring depth chart, although he played more left tackle as spring practice progressed.
O'Brien and Fitzgerald both praised Gress for his offseason transformation, and Gress gives the credit right back when discussing the progress he has made.
"My leg strength wasn't where it needed to be," Gress told ESPN.com. "But as Coach Fitz came in, clearly that changed a lot. I started putting up a lot more weight on squats and things like that. It transferred over to the field well."
Gress made clear gains in the winter program and felt considerably stronger before spring practice kicked off in March. But the practice sessions truly validated how far he'd come.
"The biggest difference seemed to be in my run blocking," he said. "Whenever I would come off of the ball, I was just more explosive. I was driving through guys instead of to them. Also, in pass protection, my punch improved a lot because a lot of the bench-press and upper-body work we've been doing.
"Once we actually got into pads, it was pretty evident. It felt good to finally feel a little more dominant on the field and feel like I was actually able to move guys around for a change."
Gress has appeared in six games in each of the past two seasons, mostly on the field goal unit. Like many of Penn State's linemen, Gress has the body to do damage, but he hadn't come close to blossoming.
He admits areas of his game weren't maximized before Fitzgerald arrived, and he can't outline specifics of his development because he didn't do Olympic-style lifting in the previous strength program.
"I hadn't really done squats," Gress said. "I don't really have anything to compare it to, but I feel stronger and I've gotten stronger since Coach Fitz came in."
The biggest endorsement for Gress and his line-mates didn't come from O'Brien or Fitzgerald, but from their teammates across the line of scrimmage. Penn State's defensive line typically has been one of the Big Ten's units, while the Lions' offensive line has been regarded as an underachieving group.
"This is unusual, but we've actually gotten a lot of positive comments from the defensive line," Gress said with a laugh. "They tell us we're playing better and we're giving them a little more competition. In previous years, it seemed like there were times when I stumbled against guys a lot. Sometimes on my punch during my pass set or during run blocking, it just seemed like I wasn't really able to finish my blocks."
Gress has carried over his momentum from the winter and spring into summer workouts. He and his fellow linemen work out four days a week and meet separately to discuss blocking schemes.
The complexity and newness of O'Brien's offense will place a heavy burden on top quarterback Matthew McGloin and the receivers and tight ends. A better-than-expected offensive line could help Penn State got a long way in the Leaders division.
"It's hard for me to speak for the other guys, but I know everyone has felt the same differences and same improvement in strength, and in the same areas," Gress said. "When I watch film, I can tell the way we run plays is more explosive. We push the D-line around a lot more than we used to."