EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth of our annual position preview series. Be sure to check back over the next couple of weeks as we preview the rest of the positions in the lead-up to the 2021 season. Yesterday, Lando previewed the wide receivers.
The Departures: Pat Freiermuth, Zack Kuntz
After a stupendous career that saw him become the school’s record for touchdown catches by a tight end, Freiermuth heads off to the NFL where he’s widely expected to be a second-round pick later this month.
Kuntz, meanwhile, was the more highly touted tight end in the same recruiting class but but injuries and the existence of Freiermuth kept him off the field and he’s since opted to transfer, though his destination is undetermined.
The Arrivals: Khalil Dinkins
The son of former NFL tight end Darnell Dinkins, Khalil actually could be headed for the defensive side of the ball over time, either at linebacker or defensive end. He’s a plus athlete with good length, though a redshirt year is assuredly in order.
The Starter: Brenton Strange...probably?
Strange, a former four-star recruit who chose the Nittany Lions over Ohio State, stepped in when Freiermuth went down last season and performed admirably, if unspectacularly. He’s got good size and long speed and presents a good target for QB Sean Clifford, though Strange may not be a lock for the TE1 spot when September rolls around.
The Backups: Theo Johnson, Tyler Warren, Khalil Dinkins
The obvious name that jumps out on this list is John. While Warren and Dinkins are great athletes to keep an eye on down the road, Johnson could well be the starter, or at least split reps evenly, with Strange in 2021.
Michigan and Georgia were Penn State’s biggest competitors for the top-100 recruit in the 2020 class. After impressing coaches immediately after stepping on campus last spring, Johnson saw a solid amount of playing time in the 2020 season,
That playing time continued to rise after the injury to Freiermuth and by the end of the season he was rotating with Strange fairly regularly.
Johnson is a little bit of a bigger body than Strange, though despite that he seems to move just as, if not more fluidly. He’s god fantastic hands and isn’t afraid to be physical either at the catch point or as a runner after the catch. If he continues to progress, Johnson is the type of player to break the records set by Freiermuth and Mike Gesicki before him.
Given that Penn State will likely use, at most, one tight end in most formations at Mike Yurcich, the Nittany Lions are sitting fairly pretty here.
Both Strange and Johnson are comofrtable being flexed out as wide receivers, and I’d expect a good bit of that under Yurcich, similarly to how Florida used 2020 Mackey Award winner Kyle Pitts.
When you pair those weapons with smaller, more shifty wideouts in Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington, Sean Clifford should have a nice array of weapons to sling the rock to in 2021.