Penn State approaches the 2017 season poised to field one of college football’s most explosive offensive attacks. High expectations at the tight end position are a key component of the early hype.
The Nittany Lions return senior Mike Gesicki, a 2016 All-Big Ten selection who considered an early NFL draft entrance. Instead of waiting to hear his name called this weekend, he and his mission will remain in State College.
“We’re an older team now, and we have a chance for some success that we’ve been shooting for, for a few years now,” he told John McGonigal of the Centre Daily Times. “Seeing that opportunity, I didn’t want to let that pass me by.”
Gesicki also excelled on the basketball and volleyball courts throughout his Southern Regional (N.J.) High School career, and arrived on campus in 2014 as more of an “athlete” than a known positional commodity. After adding weight and working on his craft at tight end, his breakout moment arrived last fall.
— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) April 20, 2017
He led all Big Ten tight ends with 48 catches, 678 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. The former two totals established Penn State position records. Meanwhile, no other Nittany Lions tight end recorded a single reception in 2016.
Another version of that one-man show is unlikely to occur this year under the direction of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and position coach Ricky Rahne. The spring camp emergence of redshirt sophomore Jonathan Holland provides hope for a more dynamic setting.
A 6-foot-4 Maryland product, Holland punctuated his recent elevated performance in the spring game. He led all participants with 8 receptions, leading to 62 yards and praise from Penn State head coach James Franklin.
“[Holland] had a strong spring for us,” Franklin said. “He weighs 250 pounds; he can catch, he can block. He’s really matured in so many different ways on and off the field. I’m really pleased with him.”
Fellow redshirt sophomore Juwan Johnson — easily the most buzzed-about player of spring camp — asserted people should be paying just as much attention to Holland.
“He’s made tremendous strides this offseason,” the receiver told Andrew Rubin of The Daily Collegian. “Whether it’s winter workouts or spring ball, he has been making his name around the program. … His game has progressed, and he is definitely having fun.”
Gesicki departs next year, destined for a large payday and potential Sunday visits to the end zone. At this stage, signs point toward Holland gaining traction as the next man up at tight end.
However, competition for reps in the role could reach a new level of intensity in 2018. The Nittany Lions are primed to add a pair of top-10 tight end prospects in the 247Sports composite rankings: Zack Kuntz (No. 3) and Pat Freiermuth (No. 6).
Both measure up among the longest-tenured members of the Big Ten’s top-ranked recruiting class. Kuntz, a Camp Hill (Pa.) High School standout, committed over Thanksgiving weekend. Freiermuth, a product of The Brooks School (Mass.), pledged before his junior season.
— Pat Freiermuth (@pat_fry5) August 16, 2016
Freiermuth and Kuntz have scholarship offers from across college football, but they opted to occupy the same recruiting class. Neither shows signs of wavering in their mutual dedication to Penn State.
“Our relationship is very strong, and we text back-and-forth every week, if not every day, in our Penn State group chat,” Freiermuth said. “Obviously it’s going to be a competition, but we’re going to embrace it. At the end of the day, even though we’re both very competitive guys, we’ll be able to look at each other and know that we’re good friends.”
Competition in future Nittany Lions camps should be a sight to behold, as well as a significant challenge for the linebackers and safeties assigned to coverage. Freiermuth stands 6-foot-5, 250 pounds. Kuntz, listed at 6-7, 218 pounds, recently set his school’s high-jump record with a 6-7 leap.
Their skill sets certainly aren’t mirror images but each player could make an instant impact. Still, at least one could be sequestered to the sideline in anticipation of an opportunity.
“We’re both going there to win a national championship, so we both have the same goal,” Freiermuth said. “We’re not going to take it personally if one plays over the other right away because we’ll each find our role and contribute.”
Penn State possesses a proud tradition at tight end. The position’s legacy features first-round NFL draft selections Kyle Brady and Ted Kwalick, former New York Jets All-Pro Mickey Shuler and budding Pittsburgh Steelers playmaker Jesse James. There’s a chance Gesicki will vie for the title of top tight end prospect entering the 2018 NFL Draft, opening the door for a new crop of contributors to rise.
The impending additions of elite 2018 talents Freiermuth and Kuntz, along with the growth of spring game star Holland, set the stage for continued tight end success at Penn State.
“The way they use the tight end is just very, very smart,” Freiermuth said. “They put them out in the flat, have them run in-routes or push them down the field. It’s crazy to see the way each route is put together to help one another out, depending on the play call. That shows the complexity of the offense and how Coach Moorhead and his staff are very intelligent with how they develop a game plan.”