Key Returnees: Adam Breneman (So.) Kyle Carter (RS Jr.), Jesse James (So.), Brent Wilkerson (RS So.)
Key Departure: Matt Lehman
Projected Starters: Breneman and Carter
Highlights from 2013
Just two short years ago, Penn State fans were in a frenzy over the potential of Penn State earning a new moniker- Tight End U. Bill O'Brien came to Penn State with a reputation for knowing how to get the most out of the tight end position. It didn't take very long during his first season to learn why he earned this reputation as the tight ends were heavily involved in a surprisingly prolific 2012 offense.
However, things got off to a slow start for the tight ends in 2013, as it became clear Christian Hackenberg was not quite yet comfortable enough to check down to all of his receivers as Matt McGloin had done so masterfully in the year before. On top of that. senior Matt Lehman was lost for the season after tearing his ACL in the season-opener against Syracuse. But once Hackenberg's confidence grew as the season progressed, so too did the production of the tight ends.
Jesse James led all Penn State tight ends with 25 receptions for 333 yards and three TDs, followed by Kyle Carter, who hauled in 18 passes for 222 yards and one touchdown. Adam Breneman had pedestrian numbers during his freshman year (15 catches, 186 yards and 3 touchdowns), but may have the most hype heading into 2014 thanks to a very strong finish. Breneman found the end zone in each of the final three games, including a spectacular 68-yard catch and run to propel the shocking upset victory against Wisconsin.
Penn State may not have an All-American at tight end, but they have what is likely the deepest unit in the nation. Breneman, Carter and James have each demonstrated they can create huge mismatches for any defense. Now they each come back with another year of experience and another offseason spent in the weight room.
As previously mentioned, Hackenberg should enter 2014 with an ability to see the entire field and use the weapons who were often ignored in 2014. Additionally, Penn State will benefit with the addition of Brent Wilkerson after a back injury kept him out for the duration of 2013. Previous to the injury, O'Brien could not stop raving about Wilkerson's abilities while he saw practice time lining up in multiple positions. Regardless of how he fits into James Franklin's system, he will certainly add a few new wrinkles to the offense.
Breneman is nursing a deep bone bruise in his knee and is out for the remainder of spring practice, so the next time we'll see him in action is August 31 in Ireland. He's not the only one with injury concerns. Kyle Carter has had to deal with a variety of nagging injuries which have prevented him from reaching his full potential. It's still unknown just what he's capable of with a full season of play. It's also unclear just how severe Wilkerson's back injury was, but we'll soon learn if he's completely recovered or if the injury has limited his tremendous athleticism. Breneman missed his senior year of high school in 2012 with a torn ACL, which is likely contributing to the cautious approach to have him sit out of spring workouts.
What to Watch for in the Blue-White Game
Breneman will be watching the Blue-White Game from the sidelines, so the focus will be on the other three. Will Carter and Wilkerson both appear healthy? The offense will benefit greatly with both players at 100 percent. With James' unique combination of size and speed, he has the potential to be in the upper echelon of tight ends in the nation so it wouldn't be surprising to see him take a huge step forward as an upperclassman.
There are two external factors that will determine this unit's success in 2014 that we'll begin to learn about on Saturday. For one, how will Franklin use this group? They are an experienced and talented bunch, and Franklin certainly seems smart enough to use them even if they might not be an exact fit for his offensive philosophy. But judging by Vanderbilt's play in 2013, it should be a happy marriage. Secondly, as Hackenberg goes so will the tight ends. Hack will no longer have Allen Robinson to depend on, so he should find ways to spread the ball out much more in 2014. He should also be much more comfortable in the pocket, resulting in more opportunities for the tight ends to demonstrate what they can do with the ball in their hands.