STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — After two injury-plagued seasons, Garry Gilliam might go from a forgotten man to a featured player in Penn State's revamped offense.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien loves calling plays to the tight end — as evidenced by his preferences at his previous job as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, — and Gilliam just happens to play the position.
The new-look Nittany Lions end spring practice Saturday with the Blue-White game. Gilliam is one of a trio of key players adjusting not only to a new coaching staff, but life back on the practice field after each spent all or most of last season on the sideline with left knee injuries.
Or in Gilliam's case, almost two seasons out of action after injuring his knee during a 24-3 loss to Iowa on Oct. 2, 2010.
"Yeah, it's much different than what we've done before, but football is football," Gilliam said recently. "In terms of schemes, they give us the ball in open space to make plays. We have to read the defense a little bit more to change our routes."
There was Gilliam on Wednesday with a brace on the left knee springing into the flat for a pass that bounced off his hands during no-huddle drills at practice. He bounced right back on the next play to hold on to ball bulleted to him by quarterback Matt McGloin.
"I've been out for almost two years so any type of football is an adjustment for me," Gilliam said.
Linebacker Michael Mauti and defensive end Pete Massaro haven't been out quite as long, but they're anxious to return, too. Mauti, who has already returned from a right knee injury earlier in his career, has been limited in practice, while Massaro has pronounced himself at about 80 percent strength.
Everyone's adjusting to the overhauled schemes, though the changes aren't quite as pronounced on defense as they are on offense.
If anything, rising seniors Mauti and Massaro will be looked on to provide leadership on a unit that's transitioning from Tom Bradley to Ted Roof at defensive coordinator. There were Mauti and Massaro, each sporting braces on their left knees, among the seniors Wednesday afternoon leading the team in stretches during a break in drills.
Mauti is not expected to participate in the Blue-White game, but he said he would be playing if it were a regular-season game.
"The good news is I have four months to prepare," he said. "By the time I get back to summer training, I'll pretty much have no restrictions."
As for Massaro, he's working his way back at practice, hoping to build on a 2010 season in which he had eight tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. He injured his left knee a year ago during spring practice.
"Pete, especially coming off the injury ... he's faster and stronger than ever, I'd say," left tackle Adam Gress said. "He's really a hard time to block."
At 6-foot-6, Gilliam would be a perfect candidate to throw a chip block on Massaro from his tight end position to help Gress. And while blocking is still a priority, the buzz this spring has been about the passing game changes.
Gilliam has watched some of the Patriots offense on tape and figures he's primarily playing the role that star Rob Gronkowski had in New England last year — not bad for someone who hasn't played a game in two seasons.
"I'm pretty sure it's very, very similar. Obviously not exactly — we're not the Patriots," Gilliam said. "What (he) can adjust to at the college level is what we're going to do then."
Note: During a 45-minute span of practice open to reporters, McGloin took reps with the first team during the no-huddle drills, followed at quarterback by Rob Bolden and Paul Jones. They're locked in a three-way race for the starting job, and O'Brien has said he hopes to narrow the field going into offseason workouts.