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Penn State Football Developing ‘Tight End U’ Identity Through Strong Depth, Recruiting

It’s no secret that Penn State football has a long and storied tradition as “Linebacker U.” But over the past few seasons, the Nittany Lions have also managed to develop some impressive talents at tight end.

Coach Tyler Bowen refers to his position group as the “Aces,” and for good reason. Since Mike Gesicki’s dominant campaign in 2016, Penn State’s tight ends have been held to a very high standard.

After a somewhat slow start to his career in the blue and white, Gesicki burst onto the scene as a junior during Penn State’s Big Ten Championship run and hauled in 48 catches for five touchdowns that year. He stepped up his game as a senior in 2017 and finished with 57 catches worth 563 yards and nine scores.

While Gesicki left Happy Valley as a bona fide superstar, the transition to Penn State’s next unstoppable force at tight end was nearly seamless. Bowen arrived in 2018 as Penn State’s tight ends coach, the same season that four-star recruit Pat Freiermuth joined James Franklin’s program.

While Freiermuth’s development as the Nittany Lions’ go-to tight end wasn’t necessarily immediate, he made his presence felt in the first few weeks of his true freshman campaign. The 6′ 5″ tight end scored his first touchdown against Illinois during Penn State’s fourth game of the season and even found the end zone with a one-handed catch during the White Out against Ohio State the next week.

Freiermuth finished the 2018 season as one of the top freshman in all of college football, with 26 total catches for 368 yards. His production didn’t slow down as a sophomore this past fall, as he grabbed 43 catches worth 503 yards and seven scores.

While it’s hard to pick out just one performance during his impressive sophomore season, the career-high three-touchdown performance in the victory over Michigan State stands out.

Along with good hands and a nose for the end zone, Freiermuth also showcased his strength throughout his second year in Happy Valley. That power was most evident during a bone-crunching play he made against Memphis in this year’s Cotton Bowl Classic.

While the star tight end had a chance to enter the 2020 NFL Draft, he ultimately elected to stay in Happy Valley for his junior season. With the 2020 season now up in the air, Freiermuth still remains a viable first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft in many eyes.

No matter what happens with the upcoming season, Freiermuth is expected to move on to the professional level in spring. Confidence remains high for Bowen and the rest of the Aces, though, as another Freiermuth or Gesicki may be waiting in the wings.

Behind Freiermuth, Penn State currently has three former four-star tight ends on its roster. Zach Kuntz came to Happy Valley in 2018, Brenton Strange in 2019, and Theo Johnson this past spring. While that trio has yet to add much of any tangible value on the field, their prolific high school football careers prove that there is plenty of talent battling for playing time alongside Freiermuth.

Kuntz was considered the fourth-best tight end in the 2018 class and the third-best overall player from Pennsylvania. Strange was also valued as a top tight end in the nation, but Johnson is seen by many as one of the best players coming out of high school. He’s the second-highest ranked overall player in Penn State’s 2020 class and dominated during his career at Holy Names High School in Ontario.

Along with Johnson, the Nittany Lions brought in three-star tight end Tyler Warren to their 2020 class.

The recruiting success at tight end has grown for the Nittany Lions in the past few months, as Bowen has managed to bring in even more talent from around the nation.

Four-star Milwaukee tight end Jerry Cross committed to Penn State’s class of 2022 just last week. While he played wide receiver as a sophomore in high school this past fall, the talent is clearly there for the 6′ 6″ pass-catcher, who made plenty of big plays over defenders at Milwaukee King High School.

Penn State’s group of Aces is only continuing to grow as talents from across the nation (and even from Canada) have flocked to Happy Valley to don the blue and white. With an impressive depth chart, several players will soon have opportunities to battle for a role as Penn State’s next Mike Gesicki or Pat Freiermuth.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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