Most teams across all levels of football would love to have a group of tight ends as talented and versatile as the the group Bill O’Brien will have in 2013.
With five tight ends on the roster expected to make an impact — including a member of college football’s 2012 All-Freshman team and an incoming five-star recruit — it’s not a stretch to say the Nittany Lions will have the best group in America.
Last season, Kyle Carter, Jesse James, and Matt Lehman combined for 75 receptions for 1,025 yards and 10 touchdowns from the tight end position. That success can be attributed, in part, to the unique ways O’Brien uses his tight ends all over the field.
“We have a lot of motion, and then he just puts us in a lot of situations.” Carter told reporters at the team’s media day. “Sometimes we’ll be out wide, sometimes in the slot, sometimes at running back, sometimes at fullback, sometimes on the line as a regular tight end, so the defense can’t really pinpoint where you’re gonna be at every play.”
“We’re in motion a lot,” James added, “We play every position, so we know every position on the field. We’re always motioning, doing other things.”
O’Brien’s strategy using his tight ends all over the field shouldn’t surprise any football fans. When O’Brien was the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots in 2011, tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski combined for an unreal 169 receptions, 2,237 yards, and 24 touchdowns, with Hernandez occasionally lining up in the backfield — he had five carries for 45 yards in the regular season and eight carries for 70 yards in the postseason.
Last season, Penn State’s tight ends didn’t do much outside of what a conventional tight end would do. In 2013, according to Carter, that may change.
“Just from talking to [tight end]coach [John] Strollo and O’Brien about some of the ideas that they do have,” Carter said, “It’s definitely gonna get nice.”
Part of what will make Penn State’s tight ends so lethal this year are the two men who will join Carter, James, and Gilliam: Brent Wilkerson and Adam Breneman.
Wilkerson is a redshirt freshman out of Maryland who sat out all of last season. A three-star tight end in 2011, very little is known about him. Aside from his performance at the Blue-White game this spring (one reception for six yards and a touchdown), Wilkerson has yet to see the field for the Nittany Lions.
Breneman, on the other hand, is one of the crown jewels of the 2013 recruiting class. The five-star recruit from Camp Hill, PA may not need to make an impact in 2013, even though he’s more than capable of doing so despite missing all of last year with a knee injury.
So far, the reviews on Breneman have been positive.
“Breneman’s looking great.” Carter said, “He’s definitely doing a great job out there with the blocking, with the receiving, everything. I tried to take him under my wing in the spring, and tried to show him a lot of different formations and the plays and everything. All summer we was doing a lot of route running and stuff, so, Breneman’s looking good.”
Penn State’s abundance of talent at tight end makes it possible to lose Garry Gilliam, who had seven receptions for 65 yards last season and was moved to tackle during the offseason, although it hasn’t been an easy loss.
“A lot of us had to just get better with out blocking and everything, because Garry was really a blocking tight end,” Carter said. “So now that he’s gone, we all have to really get a little bit more versatile when it comes to that facet of the game.”
The team’s abundance of talent also means that all of the players bring something unique to the table that all of the other tight ends can learn from.
“Kyle: route running. Jesse: using your body. Lehman: blocking. Breneman: short steps, change of direction, stuff like that,” Wilkerson added. “You can take something up from each player on the team and just run with it. We all have something that we do well and we always can learn from somebody in our group.”
Penn State’s blend of skill, depth and a tight end friendly playbook make it the premier tight end university in America. So is the nickname “Tight End U” used on among Carter, James and co. the same way that “Linebacker U” has been used around Penn State for years? Well…
“Jokingly wise, we use it, but it’s nothing serious at all,” Carter said. “We’re just trying to be the best group of guys that we can be and just help these quarterbacks out as much as we can.”