Despite the depth and talent at the tight end position, Mike Gesicki is poised for a breakout season. Let's take a closer look at the reasons why:
The knee injury to Adam Breneman at the onset of the 2014 season basically guaranteed that Gesicki would not be using his redshirt in his first year of eligibility. While he did not set the world on fire, Gesicki showed flashes of great potential as a true freshman. He finished the year with 11 catches and 114 yards, without finding his way into the end zone. A solid year for someone who was just a few months removed from attending the prom, but just "a fairly decent afternoon" for teammate and reigning Big Ten receptions leader DaeSean Hamilton.
The experience from 2014 should pay dividends as Gesicki now has the understanding of what to expect, and what is needed of him, to succeed at the next level. He appeared in every game as a freshman and went up against some of the Big Ten’s best, which should allow him to enter his sophomore season fully prepared to become an impact player.
Gesicki’s biggest weakness as a freshman was his shortcomings as a blocker. There’s a fantastic chance that changes quite a bit in 2015. Gesicki entered Penn State listed at 215 pounds, but obviously spent his time wisely in the weight room and has bulked up to 255 in a rather short period. The extra strength and mass should have a significant impact on his ability to become a well-rounded tight end who can stay on the field in nearly all situations. Entering his sophomore year, Gesicki has reached the point in his physical development where he will more closely resemble a big Ten athlete rather than a skinny kid just out of high school.
You know the phrase, "Too good to keep off the field"? That may be the best argument for why Gesicki is poised for a breakout season. The true sophomore has off-the-charts athleticism that, if used properly, will create major match-up problems for opposing defenses. It might be cliché, but Gesicki is too big for a safety to cover him, and too fast for even an extremely athletic linebacker to keep up in coverage.
Gesicki stands at 6’6’’ and 252 pounds, yet has the explosive speed that is typically reserved for 180 pound slot receivers. He is also blessed with a tremendous vertical leap- before playing his first game as a freshman, Gesicki recorded a 40" vertical. To put this in perspective, only nine (older and more developed) players exceeded 40" at that year at the NFL combine. Just imagine what Gesicki can do in the red zone this fall with his combination of size and leaping ability. Even the very best individual defenders would have one heck of a difficult time defending him on an island.
The biggest roadblock to Gesicki’s breakout is the genuine possibility of a lack of opportunity. Gesicki will have two more experienced and extremely talented tight ends in front of him to start the season in Kyle Carter and redshirt sophomore Adam Breneman. Both would be the probable starters for most big Ten teams, and should receive plenty of playing time. On top of that, there is also a logjam of young talent at the wide receiver position, which means there are many playmakers with just so many pass attempts to share.
Carter and Breneman both provide tremendous value and will see plenty of well-earned playing time. However, Gesicki may cause the type of match-up nightmares that will allow him to rise to the number one tight end by the end of the season. Additionally, Breneman and Carter each have had nagging injuries during the past few years that have forced them to miss time. If this unfortunate trend continues, Gesicki may find himself anointed to the top spot at his position.
Gesicki is not the only one who should benefit from the experience of being thrust into action so early into his career. The offensive line, which was made up mostly of players who would be learning from afar under normal circumstances in 2014, should see improvement following a horrendous season that ended with Christian Hackenberg being sacked more often than any other Big Ten quarterback in conference history. We all know what Hackenberg is capable of when given ample time to scan the field, so with an improved line Gesicki could have the opportunity to make big play after big play in the passing game. With even a somewhat improved line, Hackenberg has the ability to destroy nearly all of the single-season passing records at Penn State. If this happens, expect Gesicki to play a large role in rewriting the record books.