As the late Jerry Garcia once sang, "what a long strange trip it's been." That about sums up the existence of now departed tight end Andrew Quarless. He burst onto the college football scene in 2006 as a true freshman for Penn State grabbing 21 passes (5th on the team) for 288 yards and 2 TDs. In the off-season, Quarless ran into some trouble with the ever present State College police after the season. At this moment, Quarless rented a nice time share in JoePa's dog house for his sophomore and junior seasons. In those season, he finished with a combined 25 catches, 322 yards, and 3 TDs, well below the expectations the fans had for him. As Quarless continued to struggle, his teammate Mickey Shuler began to shine.
Shuler was the consummate team player, doing whatever was needed to help the team. His career stats aren't going to wow anyone, but Mickey simply got the job done. He was a consistent presence and even played some special teams. Shuler was also one of the 25 father-son combinations that Joe Paterno Coached (Mickey's dad, also Mickey, was a standout TE from 1975-77.) Shuler finished his senior season at Penn State with 11 catches (7th on the team) for 187 yards and 2 TDs. Mickey was drafted in the 7th round of the 2010 draft by the Minnesota Vikings.
Something happened to Andrew Quarless in 2009. No longer in the dog house, and cured of his inconsistent play, Quarless finally lived up to his considerable potential. He finished the season with 41 catches (3rd on the team) for 536 yards and 3 TDs. His 41 catches were the most ever by a Penn State TE in a single season and his 87 career receptions broke Ted Kwalick's school record (Kwalick is still the greatest Penn State TE of all time regardless if he holds the reception records.) His 1,146 receiving yards are 2nd most in school history behind Kwalick's 1,343. Quarless' outstanding season culminated with his 5th round select in the NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers.
As the page turns to 2010, Penn State has a lot of production to replace at the TE position. Will it be TE by committee? Or will someone standout from the pack?
Competition on the practice fields leads to better preparation and productivity on Saturday's, and Joe Paterno preaches this to kids he (his coaches) recruits:
"I like the team,'' Paterno said. "When I recruit kids, I tell them, 'Hey, don't be afraid of competition. If you're afraid of competition, don't even look at us because you'll never get good if you don't play against good people and you'll never get good if you don't practice against good people.'
The TE's have an opportunity to make an impact early in this season, but someone needs to step up first.
#89 Garry Gilliam- Freshman (6-6/ 263) - He certainly looks the part, but the question remains if he can play the part. The knock on Gilliam so far is that he is a average blocking TE, but he can continue to work on that and get better. If Gilliam can produce half of what Quarless did last season, the young QB's will be fine:
"We're playing young quarterbacks, and young quarterback's favorite receiver seems to be the tight end on the under routes,'' Gilliam said. "I've just been trying to sharpen up on my routes, make sure they're crisp and give them a target to throw to.''
He is saying all the right things to the media (something Penn State actually prepares their players for, unlike some other schools in the Big Ten. But remember, "not everybody is the perfect person."),he will have to make it happen on the field. If his blocking improves, and his receiving skills are as advertised, Gilliam could develop into a heckuva TE.
#13 Mark Wedderburn- Sophomore (6-6/ 226) - Wedderburn has been around the program for three years now. He has all the tools to be an outstanding TE (in NCAA 11 video game from EA Sports, Wedderburn is a beast), but he hasn't figured out how to put it together. The Lions will need him to step up this year (a make or break) in order to alleviate any struggles the young quarterbacks might face. He has the pedigree (brother Floyd played guard at Penn State in the mid 90's and was a 5th round pick of the Seattle Seahawks), he just needs to utilize his potential.
#82 Kevin Haplea- Freshman (6-4/ 243) - The true freshman will not redshirt this year and is currently the number two or three TE (depending on the day.) Haplea won't blow up any stop watches with his speed, but he is known for being an excellent blocker (in HS) and does have decent hands. He is currently pushing Wedderburn for the number two spot. If he can avoid the mental errors and continue to develop, he will become an excellent addition to the offense this season.
#87 Jonathan Stewart - Junior (6-2/ 246) - Stewart is the fourth TE at the moment with Szczerba out with the back injury. He lacks ideal height for the position, but does possess good bulk. If Szczerba can make it back, Stewart would lose any chance of playing meaningful minutes this season.
#80 Andrew Szczerba- Junior (6-6/ 254) - Things have gone from bad to worse for Szczerba. After a few stellar moments in the 2008 Blue/White games, Szczerba looked poised to see some playing time, especially with the struggles of Quarless. It just never happened. Szczerba finished 2009 with1 catch for 6 yards, not exactly the numbers you want for the TE with the most game experience on the roster. After waiting his turn, 2010 was set to be Andrew's year. However after an injury in camp, he is currently behind redshirt freshman Gary Gilliam. Szczerba is the better blocker of the two, some feel he would have made an outstanding tackle. It looks more and more likely that he won't recover from the back injury and will be passed by Gilliam, Wedderburn, and Haplea.
#88 J.D. Mason - Sophomore (6-4/ 208) - Will do some great work on the foreign team (and in the Blue/White games) just never on Saturday's when it counts. Very undersized for the position.
#83 Brett Brackett - Senior (6-6/ 242) - First let's get this out of the way; Brett Brackett is listed as a WR. Despite this fact, Brackett can make an excellent H-Back type player (Sean McHugh style.) he has already been passed on the WR depth chart by some of the younger, more talented sophomores. What is the harm in giving him a shot at TE/H-Back? It's not to say he has to becoming a blocking TE, but he could be a serviceable option as a receiving one. It would also allow Penn State to not burn the redshirt of Kevin Haplea. Brackett has been a solid kid during his time at PSU. He has done everything the coaches asked of him, moving from QB to WR and then taking a demotion after his struggles at receiver last season. This is his last chance to make an impact on the field, why not give it to him?
Whichever QB wins the job (McGloin), they will need the tight ends to step up and make plays for them as the grow within the offense.