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Penn State 2012 Position Preview: Tight Ends

Garry Gilliam makes a catch in the Blue-White Game (<a href="">Mike Pettigano/BSD</a>)
Garry Gilliam makes a catch in the Blue-White Game (Mike Pettigano/BSD)

I'd like to take you back, dear reader, to this very winter, just as our collective disgust with the selection committee (It took them this long and we ended up with freaking Bill O'Brien?!) was dissolving into optimism, confidence, and hope for the new era of Penn State football.

We saw not a new head coach who'd never held that role before, or someone who hadn't coached to much--if any--success in the college ranks, but an innovative offensive thinker who masterminded some of the most dynamic offenses in the history of football during his days with the Patriots. We saw someone who worked with Tom Brady, who could impart that wisdom onto young developing minds. And, perhaps most apropos to this position preview, we saw someone who revolutionized the role of the tight end in the offense: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were dominant downfield threats who thrived in ways we've rarely seen tight ends thrive. And we got excited.

No, there isn't a Gronk or Hernandez on this roster--at least not yet, not until Adam Breneman steps foot on campus--nor is there much experience, but there's a lot of depth and talent and game-breaking ability, the most certainly since Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler had their break-out seasons three years ago, and probably even more than that. Given a coach who knows how to maximize production from this unit, and a similarly untested wide receiving corps and running back stable, the onus could well be on the tight ends to carry more than their fair share of the load.

More 2012 Position Previews…
Running Backs (Cari) - 8.13.12
Linebackers (Mike) - 8.14.12
Defensive Tackles (Jared) - 8.15.12
Special Teams (Tim) - 8.16.12
Offensive Line (bscaff) - 8.17.12
Tight Ends (Devon) - 8.20.12
Defensive Ends (Jared) - 8.21.12
Wide Receivers (Dan) - 8.22.12
Quarterbacks (Jeff) - 8.23.12
Defensive Backs (Cari) - 8.24.12

The Starters:

Garry Gilliam, #89, RS JR

The departure of Kevin Haplea to Florida State means that Gilliam is the most veteran tight end on the team...and he's got a grand total of one catch in his Penn State career. Hey, I told you this group was unexperienced. Gilliam's been held back, though--he started the first three games of the 2010 season and saw significant playing time until the midseason Iowa game, when he tore his ACL. Normally, that'd project to a recovery for the 2011 season, but after surgery, the knee became infected, and Gilliam's injury cost him a year and a half of football. He's technically a redshirt junior this year, but he's only seen scant playing time and should almost certainly qualify for a 6th year of eligibility. Anyway, the Carlisle native stands an imposing 6-6, 262, and he'll be used as the Y-tight end. Rather than stretch the field, he'll be asked to help in the run-blocking game and run shorter routes. But whatever impact he has on the field, it may pale in comparison to the leadership he exhibits in the locker room, at least if his Twitter account is any indication.

Kyle Carter, #87, RS FR

Carter is one of three freshmen who expect to see significant playing time at the position, but unlike those two, he's at least had a full year in the Penn State system--not that its remained constant, but hey, still beats coming in fresh from high school. At 6'3, 241, Carter will fill the F-position role. Smaller and more dynamic than the likes of Gilliam, Bill O'Brien and crew will look for Carter to be the tight end who stretches the field and uses the seam, rather than a road-grading in-line blocker. That role shouldn't be too hard for Carter to acclimate to--he played wide receiver in high school before outgrowing the position.

The Rotation:

Jesse James, #18, FR

James enrolled early, coming to Penn State at about the same time as Bill O'Brien did this January. As such, he's uniquely positioned well within O'Brien's system, with as much experience as anyone else in it and no habits left over from the previous regime. With the bulked-up size (6-7, 264) and athleticism (reported 4.7 40-yard dash) to play either the F or the Y, James' versatility may establish him quickly as a rising star. Sure enough, ever since stepping foot on campus, James has received rave reviews, and should see copious playing time, even early.

Brent Wilkerson, #83, FR

Before Haplea defected and Dakota Royer left the team, Brent Wilkerson might have been a guy expected to have a redshirt season--not because he's not ready for the college game, but because a year to acclimate himself would've been useful, and Penn State might not have needed much from him. Instead, another true freshman will likely find himself on the field early and often. At 6'3, 239, Wilkerson is the smallest of Penn State's tight ends, but one with a great high school pedigree--though he made his mark, and the all-DC Metro team, at defensive end rather than tight end. Nonetheless, he's got a great frame, and though there's still plenty of room to develop, that might take a back seat to necessity this coming season.

The Depth:

The losses of Royer and Haplea make the aforementioned four players the only tight ends on the roster on scholarship. But a handful of walk-ons have some ability and might see the field, at least in mop-up duty, or if there's an injury.

Brian Irvin, #82, RS SR

Matt Lehman, #84, RS JR

Bryce Wilson, #83, RS FR

Of these three, Irvin is the only one with significant experience--a year ago, he saw time, mostly on special teams, in all but one game, after moving from the defensive line to tight end. He was also an academic all-conference selection last season. Lehman transferred from Penn State Harrisburg a year ago--after making his way from Shippensburg to that campus--and made the team after proving his ability at an open tryout. He made two nice catches at the tail end of the Blue-White Game, including a fantastic touchdown grab. And he has the size (6'6, 258) and high school pedigree (see here) that make you wonder why he was never much of a prospect. Wilson might be last on the depth chart, but even he's a tremendously skilled player, who was all-region on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball during his final high school season.

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