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Penn State Tight End Room Eyeing Rose Bowl Momentum Boost

In college football, continuity is one of the biggest challenges a program faces.

In the age of NIL deals and the transfer portal, things can feel like a revolving door. Keeping the same core group of coaches, players, and assistants around for more than a year or two seems impossible.

Penn State has enjoyed continuity at the head coaching and quarterback spots, which are perhaps the most important, but pieces have been moving all around James Franklin and Sean Clifford. Mike Yurcich, for example, is the first offensive coordinator Clifford’s been coached by for two consecutive years.

The Nittany Lions’ tight end room has been refreshingly consistent since 2020. Brenton Strange, Theo Johnson, and Tyler Warren have been in the Aces’ room since then. Just Pat Freiermuth has departed and Ty Howle, who was previously an offensive analyst, was promoted to tight ends coach ahead of the 2021 season.

Things stayed the same from 2021 to 2022, and it paid dividends. Strange led the team with five receiving touchdowns and racked up 362 yards. Johnson, despite missing the first two games of the season, had four scores and finished with the fourth-most receiving yards on the team. Warren’s three receiving touchdowns tied for third-most on the team.

But, this core three will be no more next season. Strange is set to enter the NFL Draft, leaving a hole at the No. 1 tight end spot. Yurcich said Thursday that everyone in what he said is a very competitive room will be vying for the role.

“He’s a guy that sets the tone in that room,” Yurcich said of Strange. “Everyone wants to be the premier tight end. But at the same time they’re good teammates. They compete against each other, but they’re good teammates.”

This transition of power could happen as soon as the Rose Bowl on Monday. Franklin suggested that players across the board could see limited snap counts as they begin to prepare for the draft. Yurcich said Thursday that conversations will be had to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Should Strange see a limited snap count, Johnson feels like the logical next option. He had a quietly productive season after making his first appearance in the Auburn game, only catching two fewer passes than wide receiver Keandre Lambert-Smith.

Johnson said he felt like he had a leadership role in the tight end room already. But, that is set to expand next year. He’ll have big shoes to fill among the Aces, as Clifford called Strange the “keystone” of the group.

“I’ve never had a problem speaking my mind and being a vocal leader. I just think that early on I didn’t have the right to speak up…I wanted to be sure that I’ve built the respect from my actions,” Johnson said. “Now, I’m starting to transition to more of a vocal leader.”

But, it isn’t so cut and dry as to who else will step up in the room. Johnson called it “more competitive than ever.” He said Khalil Dinkins, who scored in the Ohio game, has “all the potential in the world” and that true freshman Jerry Cross is “learning fast.”

Two four-star recruits will join the room next season, only adding to the competitiveness. Andrew Rappleyea and Joey Schlaffer both have a ton of talent and could make an impact from the get-go.

Johnson is poised for a breakout 2023 season and will have a talented supporting cast. He battled injuries this off-season and was tasked with learning the offense over Zoom before his inaugural season, leaving what he called “maybe one full offseason” during his time in the blue and white.

Getting a full, healthy season and off-season for Johnson will be great news for Drew Allar & Co. next year. But, creating momentum for that campaign begins in Pasadena.

“Taking this momentum and leading it into next year is going to be huge,” Johnson said. “I think this week and this game is going to be important not only for me, but for our program in general.”

“We’re focused on this game at hand. If we do well, we’ll definitely carry momentum,” Warren added.

Penn State might not have continuity next season in terms of having the same guys in its tight end room. But, you can expect the team to utilize the Aces in a similarly lethal way moving forward.

It’s no secret the Nittany Lions’ tight ends have been a big part of the offense. Their strong run-blocking abilities have often been cited as a major factor for Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen bringing a strong rushing attack back to prominence in Happy Valley.

Franklin and Yurcich can only hope that Johnson and the rest of the Aces will take Strange’s baton and hit the ground running. Clifford, who will be watching from the sidelines, isn’t too worried.

“You can’t leave them off the field…They can do everything. They can block, they can run routes, they can catch,” the quarterback said. “With the guys returning, it’s gonna be a great room to follow up with.”

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected]

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