UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State tight end Garry Gilliam is no slouch in the classroom, so he’s used to hitting the books.
But since Bill O’Brien has taken over the program, he’s had to spend a lot more time studying one of the most complicated pieces of literature he’s encountered — the Nittany Lion playbook.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the playbook,” Gilliam said during the team’s annual media day. “We could be lined up as a running back, as a receiver, in the slot or split out wide. We’ve got to know all of those things and these formations are different. I probably spend just as much if not more time in my playbook than I do studying for school and I still get A’s studying for school.”
Gilliam’s time spent in the playbook is warranted. O’Brien has said that next to quarterback, tight end is the toughest position to learn in the pro-style offense he brought over from the New England Patriots, where he was the offensive coordinator last season.
In that offense, tight ends have a vital role. Last season, Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 169 catches for 2,237 yards. Tom Brady completed 24 touchdown passes to the duo, including 17 to Gronkowski, as New England advanced to the Super Bowl.
“Obviously, the last two years in New England taught me a lot about the use of a tight end, multiple tight ends.” O’Brien said in the spring. “What people don't understand in New England, a lot of times we used three tight ends. In 2010, we had Aaron, Rob and Alge Crumpler. The more you have, the more difficult it is on a defense.”
Gilliam said that “the more the merrier” philosophy has transferred to the tight ends.
“Tight ends are a huge part of the offense,” the 6-foot-6, 262-pound junior said. “At any given point, there’s one, to two, to three or maybe even four of us in the game at one time. Obviously, we have a big role. You’ve seen how the Patriots ran their offense, with three tight-end sets. We’re doing the same type of stuff here.”
In O’Brien’s offense, you have two distinct designations — a “Y” and an “F” tight end.
“The Y is usually the bigger tight end,” redshirt freshman Kyle Carter said. “We’ve got three guys that are like 6-7, 260. They are the Y’s. F’s are more like the receiving types. On different formations we switch so anybody could play both.”
The system promises much more action than any tight end has seen at Penn State for a long time. Tight ends caught just 15 of the 181 passes completed last season.
“Since spring ball, we have a lot more detailed routes, a lot more routes instead of sitting and blocking,” said Carter, a 6-foot-3, 247-pounder who is listed as the first string F tight end on the summer depth chart.
“We’re actually going out and making plays. During spring ball and during training camp, we’ve all been getting the ball a lot more.”
And getting their hands on the ball certainly makes things more interesting on Saturday afternoons for the Y’s and F’s, who will hope to confuse the defenses by lining up in multiple spots. True freshman Jesse James (6-7, 264) and senior Brian Irvin (6-3, 242) are among others who could also see action.
“Obviously, we have a chance to touch the ball a little bit more and get a chance to get into the end zone,” said Gilliam, the first string Y who has one career reception. “... It allows us to showcase our talents and our athleticism a little bit more than being in just one or two spots on the field. When you’ve got someone my size split out or back in the backfield to take a take a handoff or catch a fade, it shows that all of our players are dynamic and can do more than one thing.”
The tight ends didn’t come into fall camp, having spent the summer by just cramming with the playbook. Led by quarterback Matt McGloin, the tight ends put their knowledge to good use.
“All summer we’ve been working with Matt, doing extra stuff,” Carter said. “We know that to be the best you’ve got to work. We’re doing a lot of extra work on timing and all of the routes.”
And maybe that knowledge will lead to wins on Saturdays and a career on Sundays. Penn State has a history of putting tight ends — Ted Kwalick, Mickey Shuler, Kyle Brady, John Gilmore, Andrew Quarless among others — in the NFL.
“As a tight end and at a lot of positions, there’s no better place to be in than here with this offense and the coaching staff we have, especially if you want to go to the next level,” Gilliam said.
“This offense is an NFL offense, for real,” added Carter. “It’s getting everybody ready for that next level. It’s more detailed. If you see a certain coverage, you’ve got to change your route and that receiver and the quarterback has to know for it to work. It’s a lot more complicated.”
Walt Moody can be reached at 231-4630. Follow him on Twitter @wmoodycdt