Many of us were expecting a break out year in 2014 for tight end Jesse James. While that arguably didn't happen (and much of the blame could be laid at the feet of a coaching change and an offensive line that didn't allow many receivers to get open, as well as James himself), the 6'7", 261-pound freak of an athlete will still undoubtedly be missed in State College, having been third on the team in receiving yards and receptions (first amongst tight ends), with 396 and 38 respectively--and leading the team in receiving touchdowns with three (which, I don't know if you know, is not a very high number to lead the team).
James has enough of an upside that he received a draft grade, liked what he saw and decided to forego his senior year of eligibility and enter the 2015 draft. He was taken in the fifth round by his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers, and with his experience and athleticism, he'll be sorely missed in Happy Valley. Knowing that, we asked everyone at BSD: which player is going to replace Jesse James in 2015?
Matt: If you could pick one spot on the roster where you would be OK losing a player unexpectedly, tight end is probably at the top of your list. While you never want to see a guy like James leave the program with eligibility left, PSU is in a great spot with depth, talent, and experience at tight end.
Adam Breneman was just starting to put it all together at the end of his freshman season, leading many to expect a breakout 2014 sophomore year. Instead, an injury ended the year before it even began. Despite being held back in the spring, Breneman is expected to be 100% when camp opens in the fall, and that ought to make fans and coaches alike very happy. Not only will his pass catching fill the Jesse James void, but Breneman is widely regarded as the best blocking tight end on PSU's roster. After a year where seemingly ever healthy TE struggled with their hand in the ground, that will be a welcome sight.
Devon: Adam Breneman, and he should do it with relative ease. James is and was a monster, with his size, speed, and strength, but was both horribly misused by John Donovan, and never quite put it all together. Breneman's about 20 pounds lighter than James, but should be just about as good in the run-blocking game (considering how poor James, along with all the other tight ends were in 2014, that's not a high bar to clear). He's three inches shorter than James, but it's not like Donovan ever asked James to go up and get balls, anyway. Breneman won't be as good at finding soft spots in zone defenses, and coming back to the ball as James was, not yet, but it's not like Hackenberg ever had enough time to go through multiple progressions last year, anyway. Adam Breneman has the chance to be a very special player. Let's hope he's not running three-yard outs.
Jared: Mike Gesicki seems to be ready to take the mantle as the athletic freak who simply should not be able to do the things he can for someone of his size. Gesicki learned on the fly as a true freshman, but will play a much larger role during his sophomore season. He has the physical gifts to create match-up nightmares for opposing defenses, and considering all of the other talent surrounding him on the perimeter, it will be even more likely that a player of Gesicki's caliber will find ways to get open and become a big play threat. While Gesicki will be a factor on passing downs, he could become an every-down player if he can make strides in his blocking ability in 2015.
bscaff: Jesse James ran (approximately) two pass routes last year as the "Y" tight end in Colonel Cathcart's (nee John Donovan's) offense - a 3-yard out, and a 5-yard stick. Certain types of lawn furniture can execute the same route tree. The aerial job requirements should not present too large a burden for any animate object to fulfill.
The blocking requirements of the "Y" tight end are a different story. They are vast, complex, and incredibly challenging. Now, from a historical perspective, Jesse James provided mediocre (at best) blocking results. No Penn Stater who watched our Lions from the 1970s - 1990s ever confused James for Shuler, Pankey, Brady, DiMideo, Kab, Olsommer, Scioli, et.al. However, number 18 looked absolutely vicious as an in-line blocker when compared to his 2013 and 2014 peers. Kyle Carter, Adam Breneman, Mike Gesicki, and the new guy from the WPIAL all spent their high school careers as large wide receivers, split wide in a spread scheme, apart from the pit.
And this, BSD friends, presents one of the frightening mysteries of the Col. Cathcart's approach to offense. Let's break it down, science-style:
Case Fact 1: We didn't have any blocking tight ends or fullbacks on the roster last year.
Case Fact 2: James Franklin and his staff don't recruit blocking tight ends or fullbacks. In fact, "fullback" is not even a rostered position (go ahead, sort this roster - you won't find "FB" on it).
Case Fact 3: Cathcart's "power" and "ISO-man" schemes prominently feature roles which you and I recognize as "blocking tight end" and "fullback". Power and ISO schemes demand road-grading, point-of-attack-dominating tight ends and fullbacks - those nasty, physical beast-men who are both parts eager and capable of smashing their faces into your face, and burying you into the sod.
So, let's review those case facts, because they're equally confusing and hilarious. Fact 1 - we didn't have any fullbacks or blocking tight ends last year. Fact 2 - we won't have any fullbacks or blocking tight ends this year, or in the future. Fact 3 - Cathcart's offense features fullbacks and blocking tight ends. Repeat as necessary until these conflicting facts coalesce into a cogent strategy.
Bill: I think it's Adam Breneman, and I don't think it's even close. As Ben outlined, there are a lot of, uh, questionable ways that Penn State uses its tight ends, and while the Nittany Lions don't have a traditional, nasty guy who catches short passes and is a superb blocker above everything else, I think Breneman fits that description better than everyone, especially because Kyle Carter and Mike Gesicki are essentially massive wide receivers. Sure, Breneman is an excellent pass catcher and a matchup nightmare – I think that, since he missed a year, we kind of forget that he was the No. 2 tight end recruit in America sometimes – but he's a much better blocker than any of Penn State's other options. Whatever he does in the passing game is a plus, at least while he takes a year to get assimilated to the speed of the game, but I think Breneman's going to get back in the swing of things and make his biggest impact as a blocker in 2015.
Dan: It'll be Adam Breneman pretty much by default, and that should be fine. As has been mentioned before, the talent at the tight end position is not going to be the concern this year. Hopefully having three talented non-freshmen at the tight end position and a more experienced offensive line gives the coaching staff the confidence to build the playbook around the talent they have.
Tim: Adam Breneman, due mainly to his block abilities. This is not meant as any slight against Kyle Carter or Mike Gesicki, as I expect both will carve out their niches as solid pass-catchers who can potentially be matchup nightmares (like Bill said, they are more like massive wide receivers) but Breneman provides a more complete package as a blocker/receiver and its the former that will have the coaching staff elated that he's healthy again after missing the entire 2014 campaign.
Cari: The clear and obvious pick is Breneman here, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say Kyle Carter. Carter had a monster game against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl, and I think he realizes that he needs to pick it up in his senior year in order to continue his football career beyond college. He should be able to go back to his redshirt freshman 2012 form, and be a great extra option for Hack--or first option. Being the most seasoned tight end on the roster after Wilkerson should help him in game situations and with blocking, and he's fully recovered from his earlier career injuries. I'm all in on Carter, God help me.