Brian Gaia Is The Offensive Line’s Mainstay In A Period Of Chaos
Penn State has burned its way through tackles with a series of injuries as the teams heads into Rutgers. It’s also been forced to make changes at guard, whether it be due to injury or shifting players out to tackle.
The one mainstay on the offensive line has been center Brian Gaia. His performance and leadership this season has allowed Penn State’s offensive line to hold together through the patches of adversity throughout the season.
“He’s been really good,” James Franklin said. “With us, having a true freshman and redshirt freshman starting on either side of him, I don’t think you can do that without Brian Gaia at center as a senior that has played as much football as he has.”
Impressive for a guy that’s spent his last two seasons at guard, and even more impressive for a guy that started his Penn State career on the opposite side of the ball.
Gaia was a three-star recruit out of The Gilman School in Baltimore as part of Bill O’Brien’s first class. The three-time All-Maryland guard was redshirted his first season and shifted to play defensive tackle. He played all 12 games during his redshirt freshman season.
After Bill O’Brien left for the Houston Texans job, incoming coach Franklin had another change up his sleeve for Gaia. He would be heading back to the offensive line to play guard like he did in high school.
After spending two seasons transitioning to defense, Gaia would have to work his way back to his peak, and the re-adjustment at the college level wasn’t easy. There was one player in particular he strived to be when making the transition.
“John Urschel, even though I wasn’t on offense when he was here, his work ethic is something you want to set your standard at,” Gaia said. “So when I went to the offensive line, I said ‘I want to be like John Urschel or something like that.'”
Through the offseason, Gaia earned praise from coaches who named him as the offense’s most improved player. In his first two seasons with Penn State’s offensive line, Gaia started all 25 games and became one of the most consistent aspects of the offense.
After two successful seasons at right guard, Gaia had one more transition to make for his final season with the Nittany Lions.
With 2015 starting center Angelo Mangiro graduating and offensive line coach Herb Hand getting replaced by Matt Limegrover, Penn State knew its offensive line would look different. But the surprising change was to force Gaia to switch positions once more and become a center.
Gaia, who had no experience as a center, used spring ball to learn the new role.
“The hardest transition was just the snaps,” Gaia said. “There’s days in the spring where I wouldn’t have a problem, then the next day I’d come in and something obviously changed.”
With the new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead bringing in an up-tempo offense that is operated solely from the shotgun, Gaia had a much tougher road to figuring out the position.
Gaia’s move to center, while not always smooth, ended up being a good fit by the start of the season. But perhaps more importantly, he prepared the rest of the offensive line for the season after it allowed 39 sacks in 2015 — which was ranked No. 113 of the 128 teams in FBS.
“A guy like Brian Gaia, who’s been through so much, for him to come out and he basically wills these guys to go everyday,” Limegrover said. “They’ll follow him and I love that about him. I don’t have to pull teeth. I don’t have to come out here and kick them in the tail end, tell them it’s not acceptable.”
The offensive line has made steady improvements from last year, but not before a rocky patch at the start of the season.
Penn State’s offense showed flashes of brilliance, but was still a work in progress. This was evident in the blowout loss to Michigan. In the game, Penn State managed only a couple first downs on its way to a 49-10 defeat. Gaia’s line was broken down time after time, allowing a season-high six sacks.
Gaia, visibly frustrated with the display his team put on, said the offensive line will have to stick together if its going to have any success this season.
“It’s a mentality thing,” Gaia said. “The unit up front, if we don’t all operate together, it doesn’t matter if one player plays great. If [Andrew Nelson] plays well or someone plays well, if we don’t play together, we all get affected.”
The rough loss may have been a turning point. After the Michigan game, the offensive line didn’t allow a single sack against Minnesota and has allowed just nine sacks in its last six games.
Even with the revolving door that’s been each spot on the line surrounding Gaia, Penn State’s front five is playing as well as it has in the past couple of years. Gaia’s been at the forefront of that, but more importantly, he’s setting the standard and helping along an inexperienced group late in the season.
“I think you just have to instill confidence in them,” Gaia said. “A lot of the guys, it’s there first time playing like Steven Gonzalez and he stepped up really well [against Indiana] for us. Usually we let them know they’re physically able to do this and they just have to go out there and do it.”
With a pair of games left in the season plus whatever postseason play the Nittany Lions earn for themselves, Gaia is becoming even more crucial to securing Penn State’s first ten-win season since 2009.