Illinois at Penn State
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The scholarship offer came just 12 days before national signing day. The commitment came just a week later.
Wendy Laurent was not a priority recruit for Penn State. The Nittany Lions were scrambling to fill their 2012 recruiting class as Bill O’Brien took over as coach under the dark clouds of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
“In eighth grade I came to a camp there with one of my friends. I didn’t know too much about Penn State then,” Laurent said. “But when I came here, I fell in love with the history, the tradition. I started watching more games, and that’s how it all started.”
Laurent might have faded into obscurity like many of his classmates who came aboard the same week.
Steven Bench transferred. Da’Quan Davis was dismissed. Jonathan Warner stayed at Penn State but gave up the game.
Three-and-a-half years later, Laurent is Penn State’s starting center. And he has a shot to hold down the job through 2016.
“I’m excited,” Laurent said. “Obviously it’s something I worked hard for. I finally reached that goal, and it feels good.”
With the Lions forced to shuffle around their offensive line every other week because of injuries and ineffectiveness, coach James Franklin was looking for some stability.
“It was time to pick our five and roll with it,” Franklin said.
So Laurent, who had taken over at left guard in the second half a week earlier, slipped in at his natural position in the middle against Maryland.
Angelo Mangiro, Penn State’s center for much of the last two seasons, shifted over to left guard. The senior has shown flexibility in the past, playing every spot up front except left tackle.
“I think it’s interesting,” Franklin said. “I would say they’re both centers. They’re both guys that can take control, make the calls, get everybody on the same page. I think their size and body types and things like that probably are more suited to be centers. But I also think they’re two kind of veteran guys that have some savvy to them and know how to play and know how to play with their strengths.
“We just think it’s the right thing for us to do for our team and have some of that leadership and have some of that veteran presence in there.”
With Mangiro’s career winding down and Laurent still with another year of eligibility left, it couldn’t hurt to get the junior some more game experience anchoring the line.
Laurent had done it before. When Donovan Smith went down with a concussion last season, Mangiro ended up at right tackle and Laurent started three games at center.
His first nod there this season wasn’t easy. Maryland surprised the Lions by bringing heavy blitzes and overloading the box and it was up to Laurent and Mangiro to try and get everyone to adapt to the Terps’ scheme.
“The communication, once we got on the same page and knowing what we were doing against it, it was easier,” Laurent said.
“They did good,” Franklin said of Laurent and Mangiro. “First time kind of doing it. They’ll continue to get better. But I think we’ll probably be playing with two centers in there, one at center, one at guard. I do think the leadership has been important.”
It helps that both players are well familiar with one another.
Though they’re a year apart, both are New Jersey natives and have driven back home together on breaks.
“We’ve done road trips together,” Mangiro said. “We’re pretty good friends. Him coming into the lineup wasn’t too much of an adjustment. He’s ready for the opportunity.”
That’s something the coaching staff wasn’t sure would be true a year ago, even after Laurent was forced into duty.
He was lightly recruited out of The Hun School in Princeton, with UConn, Navy, Buffalo and UMass as his other FBS offers. He didn’t stand out much in his first two years on campus as O’Brien left for the NFL and Franklin’s staff took over.
But by the time training camp opened this past summer, coaches couldn’t help but notice him. Franklin called him the most improved player on the roster.
“He’s just so much more competitive,” Franklin said this week. “He’s so much more confident. He’s changed his body in terms of his body fat and his muscle mass. And I think just year two (of being in this offense), he’s just more confident with his responsibilities.
“And at that position experience really counts, because you’re typically the quarterback of the offensive line — telling everybody what to do and identifying the front and the combination block and those things — which is essential for playing O-line.”
It all led up to last week when line coach Herb Hand told the unit there were going to be some changes.
This time, Laurent had earned the job on merit, not because someone got hurt.
“It’s been a long journey,” he said. “But it’s been well worth it.”
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarseTagged with: PSU-Illinois