- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Good coaching and good players have buoyed the program in rough waters, and the bountiful recruiting start to the James Franklin era could prevent the drop-off many believed to be inevitable.
But there are spots on the roster where Penn State is struggling with the numbers game. None is more glaring than the offensive line.
Arguably no position group in the Big Ten has fewer guarantees than the Lions' line. Three starters are gone from last season's squad. One of the two returnees, Miles Dieffenbach, reportedly suffered a serious knee injury this spring. Two days before spring practice began, the coaches moved defensive tackles Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey to guard. Both immediately entered the starting rotation. Penn State exited the spring with just two healthy players -- tackle Donovan Smith and guard/center Angelo Mangiro -- who had lettered as offensive linemen in 2013.
"We have some talented guys," Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand told ESPN.com. "We just don't have a wealth of them."
The good news: Hand has been here before. When Hand arrived at Vanderbilt in August 2010 -- Bobby Johnson had retired in July, and interim coach Robbie Caldwell made Hand his first hire -- he inherited 12 offensive linemen, five of whom were true freshmen.
He had just weeks to prepare them for the season. So he went to work.
"That's a challenge, but as those guys grow together, they're like balls of clay," Hand said. "They're guys you can mold and you can form and you can develop into exactly what you want them to be."
Exactly what Hand wanted back then at Vanderbilt, and now at Penn State, are linemen who aren't limited to one position. Centers that can play guard. Swing tackles. Guards who can move outside if need be. Tackles who can line up on either side.
Wesley Johnson started four seasons for Hand at Vanderbilt, finishing his career with the most starts (51) in team history and the longest active streak in the SEC at the time. He earned several awards, including SEC All-Freshman in 2010 and first-team All-SEC in 2013.
But perhaps his biggest achievement was playing all five line positions during his career. Although he started at left tackle throughout his final season, he was also the first option if Vanderbilt needed another center.
Hand needs the same flexibility from Penn State's linemen this season.
"We've always had to develop our depth through guys playing multiple positions," he said. "It’s almost like a basketball team. You've got your starting five and then you've got your sixth man, you've got your seventh man, and so on. That's the way we approach developing our offensive line. Let's get to where we have six guys, seven guys, eight guys who we can count on.
"That way, we can always get our top five on the field at any given time."
Hand describes Dieffenbach as a "guy who could play all five spots."
"Typically, you'd like to have [6-foot-6] at tackle and 6-3 at guard and 6-3 at center," Franklin said. "Well, we might have 6-3 at tackle and 6-3 at center. It is what it is."
The only lineman likely to be left alone, namely because he protects quarterback Christian Hackenberg's blind side, is Smith. The 6-foot-5, 322-pound junior enters his third season as the starter and, according to Hand, has "got to be our bell cow."
Hand saw Smith improve his communication and work ethic throughout the spring as he learned a new system. Smith enjoys Hand's "Lions of scrimmage" mantra for the group, and the aggressive style the new coaches have brought to the offense.
"Being an older guy, being here for some years, it's definitely a lot of responsibility," Smith said. "It's going to make me better. You get older, people graduate and it's the next guy up. It's the way college football works."
Despite their inexperience on offense, Dowrey and Gaia also welcome the opportunity to be relied upon. Hand saw few players on either side of the ball improve more from the start of the spring until the end.
"I can't even tell that they played defense just last season," Smith said. "Their spring has been amazing. They probably had a better spring that I had in previous springs. I trust them playing next to me.
"If we had to play a game tomorrow, I'd be very comfortable with our offensive line."
Like many of Franklin's assistants, Hand has put an emphasis on building bonds among his group. The chemistry appears strong. The next step is to further absorb the system after the linemen "hit the ground walking" this spring, Hand said.
Hand is still waiting to coach a group with 10 game-ready offensive linemen. He usually has eight. That might be wishful thinking this season at Penn State.
"That's the one spot on the team we need to grow as fast as we can as far as depth," offensive coordinator John Donovan said.
It won't be easy, but if the Lions can win the numbers game on the offensive line, they'll be in better shape to win the ones on the scoreboard.
The NCAA penalties some described as worse than death were supposed to cripple Penn State for years to come, but the Nittany Lions, so far, have survived and, at times, thrived.