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Spring Football Preview: Tight Ends

On April 18, the Penn State football team will take the field for their annual Blue/White scrimmage. In the midst of spring practice, and headed into the spring game, we'll be taking a closer look at all of the position groups. Up next: tight ends.

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When Bill O'Brien took over Penn State, many thought the program in Happy Valley would soon become Tight End U, with the way the former Patriots offensive coordinator was known to use the position. His two years at the helm of the Nittany Lion offense didn't disappoint, with the position being utilized in new and creative ways--and elite talent such as Adam Breneman and Mike Gesicki committing to play at PSU solely for the chance to learn from BOB.

When Franklin took over, that was thought to change, and 2014 seemed to bring that on. A depleted offensive line and very young team limited what the offense did last year, but the talent, depth and experience is there for the tight end position to be one of the bright spots in 2015--and, once again, one of the best in the Big Ten, if not the country, despite a key loss.

Key Departure: Jesse James

Oft lauded as a monster of an athlete, James often seemed unwilling to take advantage of his dominating size and speed, almost avoiding contact and not wanting to truck over opposing defensive backs that appeared to be half his size. In the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College, though, he finally appeared to get over that hump and a first down catch in overtime was the key to Penn State's victory; despite these season-long ups and downs, James was Christian Hackenberg's go-to tight end, the only TE in top five in receiving yards in 2014 with 396 yards on 38 receptions for 10.4 yards per catch and a team-high 3 receiving touchdowns on the year. James decided to forego his fourth year of eligibility and test the waters in the NFL, but the cupboard is anything but bare in this deep position.

Likely Starters: some random combination of Adam Breneman, Kyle Carter and Mike Gesicki--or maybe all three

In early 2014, most followers of the Nittany Lion program expected true freshman Gesicki to take a redshirt year, buried on the depth chart as he seemed to be behind James, 2013 true freshman standout Breneman, and 2012 Big Ten All-Freshman selection Kyle Carter. Then, bad news--an unexplained season-long knee injury to fan favorite (and 2013 key Hack target) Breneman, which seemed to press Gesicki into early service.

Not unexpectedly, the number 2 TE in 2014 was Carter, based on past history and experience at the position; despite some key drops for much of the year, and an underwhelming 2013 following his breakout season as a true freshman, Carter appeared in all 13 games, logging 153 yards on 16 catches. He didn't get a touchdown grab all year--all year, that is, until the game-winning overtime touchdown in Yankee Stadium in the Pinstripe Bowl, in arguably his best performance of the season. Welcome back, Carter--let's hope that performance springboards you into a stellar 2015, as the last member of Tha Supa Six still in State College.

Gesicki became, as stated above, Hack's third TE option, and he didn't disappoint as a former basketball standout in high school. He also played in all thirteen games, and while his blocking could use work (usual for a true freshman), he logged eleven grabs for 114 yards and an impressive 10.4 ypc--the same as James. He's still looking for his first collegiate touchdown catch.

Breneman, who had one of the most anticipated commitment ceremonies in years in 2013, was pressed into service early his freshman year, grabbing four receptions in the loss to UCF; he went on to average 12.4 yards per catch on the way to 186 yards in 15 receptions and three touchdowns, including a lumbering 68-yarder in the season-capping win over Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium. Though all indicators are that he is healing well from last year's surgery, he may be seriously limited in this week's spring game--if he sees time at all, as the coaches may well want to err on the side of caution, knowing exactly what they have in Breneman.

Primary Backup: Brent Wilkerson

Wilkerson's career has been unfortunately marred by injury, and then he's been passed on the depth chart by freakish talents like James, Breneman and then-freshman phenom Carter. He saw time in all thirteen games last year, coming off a near-career ending back injury in 2013, but wasn't targeted much--being Hackenberg's fourth option at the tight end position. He finished the season with only two receptions for eighteen yards, though one of those two was for a touchdown. He'll likely have similar numbers this year, behind the talented trio ahead of him, but he's definitely capable of stepping up when necessary in his final year in the blue and white.

Also look for former fullback Dominic Salomone or former linebacker Charles Idemudia to have an impact at this position in the Blue/White game, if not in the fall.