When Bill O'Brien stepped off the plane in State College, every tight end on the roster could hardly believe their luck. Offense for the New England Patriots had been efficient and effective in the years prior to O'Brien's tenure as offensive coordinator, but his use of two exceptionally talented tight ends - Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez - was uniquely special. Those two were weapons to be deployed from multiple locations on offense, match up nightmares to overmatch a slow-footed linebacker or an undersized defensive back.
O'Brien's offenses over two years at Penn State generally won near-unanimous praise. Outside of quarterbacks Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg, it was the tight ends that mattered most. In 2012, O'Brien's first as head coach, the tight ends combined for 82 catches for 1,090 yards (McGloin threw for 3,266, a Penn State single-season record). In 2013, the tight ends remained a significant part of the offense, an outlet for a true freshman quarterback. That year, the tight ends combined for 60 catches for 572 yards (most of Hackenberg's 2,955 yards went to All-American wide receiver Allen Robinson). We also got to see this, which appeared to bode well for the future:
O'Brien left for Houston on New Year's Day 2014, and Breneman suffered what was eventually a career-ending injury not long after. The following fall, James Franklin's first year, the John Donovan-led offense tried valiently to use the tight ends in the same way they had been previously, and the results were perfectly acceptable - 67 catches for 681 yards.
But last year, Jesse James graduated and tight end production fell off a cliff - 33 catches for 299 yards. The corps was stuck with a case of the dropsies, and it's most replayed moment was this moment with senior leader Kyle Carter:
Not the greatest showing.
So, what now? With Joe Moorhead replacing John Donovan, we now look to a relatively untested group of tight ends to take their place in a fast-paced offense. Of course, we can expect there to be speed bumps along the way. Indeed, there already have been.
This role was seemingly set to be filled by rising redshirt senior Brent Wilkerson. The 6'3, 243 pound Wilkerson was the most consistent tight end last year, playing mostly in an H-Back role. It's fairly unlikely that you'll see Wilkerson this spring, though (and, frankly, this upcoming season), since he's been charged with indecent assault and has been indefinitely suspended.
That certainly brings junior Mike Gesicki back into the picture. The former four-star recruit was expected to be a significant part of the offense last year, but stalled out of the gate, hindered by regular drops and poor blocking. His 13 catch season exceeded his 11 catch freshman year in number only. If Gesicki can bring his production back in line with his potential, Joe Moorhead has a massive weapon to deploy at any given time. For his part, Gesicki says that he's "not really thinking about the struggles," and wide receiver Chris Godwin notes that Gesicki looks "more relaxed." Good, because he'll be needed here.
A group of young guns headline the tight end reserve group, and any and all of them can expect to see significant time behind the pride of Southern Regional. Redshirt freshman Nick Bowers was a consensus three-star prospect out of Kittanning, Pennsylvania. Originally committed to Pittsburgh, Bowers flipped his commitment late in the 2015 cycle to James Franklin and company.
Another redshirt freshman, Jonathan Holland, should see some time at tight end. The Maryland product was high school teammates with Ohio State commit Dwayne Haskins, he of The Movement fame. Holland initially looked to be slated for defensive end, but at this point has found a home on the other side of the ball.
The award for youngest tight end on the roster goes to Danny Dalton. The 6'4, 241 pounder out of Massachusetts is an early enrollee, having started his coursework at Penn State in early-January. He'll have the chance to show what he can do in the Blue/White Game certainly, but his work this spring and in camp this summer will go a long way toward determining his redshirt status for the coming year.