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James Franklin calls new Penn State tight ends ‘really good 1-2 punch’
Plenty of attention during Penn State’s upcoming Fiesta Bowl matchup vs. Washington will focus on the perceived final college game for Saquon Barkley. The sensational running back, presumably on the verge of declaring for early NFL draft entry, isn’t alone among key contributors whose days in a Nittany Lions uniform are numbered.
Tight end Mike Gesicki, a four-year contributor and key member of James Franklin’s first recruiting class, will move on to the next phase of his football career following Fiesta Bowl action. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound senior leads Penn State with 9 touchdown receptions, and he’s left a major mark on program record books.
Gesicki leads all Nittany Lions tight ends in career catches (123), receiving yards (1,419) and touchdowns (15). Beyond him, Penn State has seen very limited production at the position since 2016.
Nittany Lions veterans will obviously vie to claim at least a share of the target volume Gesicki leaves behind, but a pair of roster newcomers could quickly make their case for consideration as replacements.
Penn State signed two top-10 tight end prospects Dec. 20 at the start of college football’s early signing period. Zack Kuntz (No. 4 nationally among tight ends in 247Sports 2018 composite rankings) and Pat Freiermuth (No. 8) both verbally committed to the Nittany Lions as high school juniors and sealed those decisions last Wednesday.
“That’s a really good 1-2 punch,” Franklin said while assessing Penn State’s 21 early signees.
RELATED: 2018 Penn State recruiting big board
Earlier this year, I spoke with Ronny Torres about both players. Torres, a former Division I tight end, serves as director of player personnel for tight ends and receivers with The Opening, a marquee national camp circuit.
Torres compared Kuntz to No. 1 2017 tight end prospect Colby Parkinson, as both players present impressive athleticism while competing at 6-7, 230 pounds. Parkinson has 4 touchdown catches as a freshman at Stanford.
Kuntz, who starred at Camp Hill (Pa.) High School, is more than just a large pass target. He produced at a high rate throughout his prep career, collecting nearly 3,000 receiving yards.
His senior season featured 40 catches for 1,057 yards (26.4 per reception) and 8 touchdowns. Kuntz also earned a state title in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2017 state track and field championships.
“Kuntz, at 6-7, 215 pounds or so, came to camp and ran in the 4.6s (in the 40-yard dash) for us, which is really impressive,” Franklin said.
Franklin then compared Kuntz to Gesicki, who arrived on campus in 2014 with limited experience as a traditional tight end.
“Kuntz, I think, is very similar in a lot of ways to Gesicki,” he said. “High school wide receiver — probably a little further along as a tight end than what Mike was — but both big-bodied guys who can really run.”
He’s primed to enroll at Penn State in January, and the Nittany Lions staff will have a head start to develop him toward the responsibilities of an adjusted role.
“I think we’re going to have time to grow him,” Franklin said. “Him graduating early is really going to help. If he gets on the field, great. He doesn’t have to get on the field as a freshman like [Gesicki] did. There will be value in that as well. Let him kind of marinate in the weight room a little bit and take some time, but he is a long, athletic kid who can run.”
From the standpoint of physical progression, Franklin points to Freiermuth as a different situation.
“With Freiermuth, you kind of got the complete opposite. You’re talking about a 6-5, 250 pound road grader,” he said. “Tough guy with really soft hands.”
Torres offered a similar assessment during our discussion, asserting that Freiermuth is “maybe the most college-ready right now” among 2018 tight end recruits.
He excels as a blocker, runs precise routes, and provides big-play potential. Among his 13 total touchdowns in 2017, 10 occurred from more than 20 yards out. Freiermuth’s sustained advancement as an athlete and football player has captured the attention of Penn State coaches.
“He did a great job for us [in camp], but what was probably more impressive is how much he improved in his testing numbers from his junior year to his senior year,” Franklin said. “[He] was really kind of the same weight, but it was different weight. His body had changed. We’re really excited about him and think he’s got a bright future.”
Though Freiermuth won’t enroll this winter, he feels confident about matching high expectations for Penn State’s compelling tight end tandem.
“I think Zack and I have a really good chance to play right away, especially with him enrolling early and my body being developed almost like a college tight end,” Freiermuth said. “We’re both in a good spot right now to come in, compete and make an impact freshman year.”
Nittany Lions legacy target Solomon Enis adds another Big Ten offer
The recruitment of Solomon Enis is one Penn State fans will watch closely as this winter progresses. The 6-4, 190-pound North Canyon (Phoenix) High School receiver didn’t utilize the early signing period, extending his decision-making process toward the traditional National Signing Day (Feb. 7).
Enis, a 4-star recruit who is the son of former Nittany Lions running back Curtis Enis, used an official visit in Happy Valley last month. Along with Penn State, interest includes a few Pac-12 programs.
Another Big Ten team entered the equation on Christmas. Nebraska, led by new coach Scott Frost, extended Enis’ latest scholarship offer:
— Solomon. (@SolomonEnis) December 25, 2017
Nebraska lost a blue-chip receiver prospect early this month when Joshua Moore re-opened his recruitment. The Cornhuskers are clearly intent on securing more talent at the position, though a late push for Enis sure seems like a tall task considering his proximity to Pac-12 contenders and family rapport with Penn State.
Enis enjoyed a dominant career at North Canyon. He caught 110 passes for 1,964 and 18 touchdowns as an upperclassman, according to MaxPreps.
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