Theo Johnson & Penn State Football Tight Ends Continue To Shine Against UMass
As Theo Johnson dashed toward the goal line for his second touchdown against UMass Saturday afternoon, one thought ran through his mind for a split second: “Brenton Strange did this.”
Just as his fellow tight end and former teammate had done on a rainy day at Beaver Stadium a year earlier, Johnson took another step toward the end zone, jumped up, and flipped over another Nittany Lion in his way to give Penn State football its sixth touchdown of the night.
Johnson had one of his best nights as a collegiate tight end Saturday as he caught four passes for 66 yards and two touchdowns. Coming into Saturday’s game, Johnson hadn’t found the end zone since he recorded two touchdown receptions on November 26, 2022, against Michigan State.
Despite the low numbers, Johnson hasn’t been performing poorly since that Michigan State game. He’s just been one of two impressive tight ends at James Franklin’s disposal. Having two tight ends has made competition fierce, and with that, it’s been difficult for quarterback Drew Allar to send as many passes to Johnson or teammate Tyler Warren as he could if he had just one starting tight end.
Even without the glory of the touchdowns that Warren has had — four through six games this year — Johnson has still been a key part of the offense that has used its tight ends all year long. Coming into Penn State’s matchup against UMass, Johnson said he wasn’t expecting that trend to slow down.
“I think that with our game plan this week, I was expecting to have maybe a little bit more,” Johnson said after the game. “So it was good to get used as much as I did today.”
Johnson and Warren have been consistent all season, becoming some of Allar’s favorite targets. If the tight ends aren’t Allar’s favorites, Johnson said that he thinks they rank fairly high.
“I haven’t seen him pick a favorite yet. I think that he knows that he can rely on us,” Johnson said. “We meet every Monday, just to make sure we’re on the same page with everything. So I think I’d like to say he likes to get us involved.”
The numbers back up Allar’s comfort with Johnson and Warren. The two have combined for seven receiving touchdowns, 287 receiving yards, and 31 receptions. The tight ends are two of Penn State’s top five pass catchers. Warren sits behind only top wide receiving option KeAndre Lambert-Smith in receiving yards, and with sophomore Khalil Dinkins’ touchdown catch against Iowa, the tight end room has caught eight of the Nittany Lions’ 15 receiving touchdowns.
Outside of their performances on Saturdays, Allar said that he’s garnered respect for his top two tight ends as leaders. Johnson is a team captain, but Allar said that both Johnson and Warren have made efforts to take care of the younger players in the room.
Despite the tight competition for minutes in the tight end room, it doesn’t seem to have impacted Johnson and Warren’s emotional bond. When Warren scored his touchdown against UMass, Johnson was the first player to reach him to bear hug Warren in the end zone.
On the practice field, Johnson and Warren have shown themselves to be worthy of the attention they’re getting. Allar said that they’ve worked hard to get where they both are and they deserve the touchdowns.
“[They’re] the most consistent players on the offense,” Allar said. “They do whatever is asked of them if they’re in the run game and the pass game, and they’re very unselfish. And that makes the whole team better and it’s really fun to be with those guys.”
The Nittany Lions’ tight ends have done more for the team than just catch passes, Franklin said. Penn State’s ability to field multiple tight ends at once forces opposing defenses to gameplan for everything those tight ends offer. From run- and pass-blocking to pushing Allar forward into the end zone to catching touchdown passes, Johnson and Warren serve as a challenge for opposing defensive coordinators.
“You can’t just put them into a category,” Franklin said. “It’s been it’s been great. We’ve been fortunate to recruit and develop a really good tight end room.”
But as with the rest of Penn State’s roster, Johnson and Warren have both said that they aren’t focused on personal glories.
The Nittany Lions will face No. 3-ranked Ohio State in a week’s time in Columbus. And while the next seven days will be focused on one opponent and one opponent only, Johnson said that he and his teammates want to take their schedule one game at a time. For Saturday night, Johnson can celebrate. After that, Penn State will need him to show out once at Ohio Stadium.
“It’s really hard to win,” Johnson said. “We try and enjoy every single win…just because it’s hard to do.”
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