Kyle Carter knew he would be more useful to his JV football team as a pass-catcher of some sort.
So Carter, then in his freshman year at William Penn High School near his hometown of Bear, Del., kept on his coach, Erik Jones, begging him to give him a shot. Jones wasn’t convinced.
To that point, Carter — already a big, strong kid — had starred as an offensive tackle and as Jones saw it, there was no need to fix something that wasn’t broken. But with a few free moments before an early-season practice, Jones figured he’d have some fun with Carter.
Jones, who played quarterback at Delaware State, grabbed a football and told Carter to go deep. One ‘Hut!’ and Carter was off. In a matter of seconds he was striding across the 40.
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Jones’ heave cut upward through the air where it hung for a few seconds before spiraling nose-down over Carter’s outside shoulder and into his outstretched hands.
The offensive tackle’s timing was perfect. His speed was impeccable. His hands were sure.
As Carter headed back toward his coach, Jones pulled him aside.
“I said, ‘You know what? You’re going to play tight end in the next game.’ ”
• • •
Having coached Carter in basketball and football during his early high school years, Jones was close with the Carter family.
He’d run into the Carters at William Penn sporting events of which Mitchell Carter, Kyle’s father, was an avid fan. So it was not out of the ordinary for Jones and Mitchell to strike up a sports-related conversation on a whim.
One night during Kyle’s sophomore year, Jones was leaving a local movie theater when the Carters were heading in. Mitchell and Jones stood outside the theater for a few minutes to talk sports.
Notably, Mitchell wanted Jones to make him a promise. He wanted Jones to keep his son focused on football. He had no concerns about his son’s academics. Kyle was always one of the smartest kids in the classroom. His consistently near-perfect report cards proved that. No matter what, he seemed destined for success in academia.
But Mitchell had an inkling his son could do something exclusive on the gridiron.
“He’d seen his blessed talent,” Jones said.
It wasn’t uncommon for Kyle to have an impact quickly. After his successful position-switch in football, Carter was instrumental in William Penn’s basketball championship in 2009.
He brought toughness to his team’s lineup, playing his most varsity action in the postseason that year. He matched up against the other team’s best players, oftentimes shutting them down completely.
His success carried over to football, but he suffered an MCL injury during his junior season.
His senior season would be much tougher. Carter’s dad had started getting headaches when Carter was a sophomore and sought treatment. But it wasn’t until Carter’s senior year that doctors discovered cancer was the culprit.
Mitchell Carter died four games into Carter’s senior football season. The loss of his father still stings Carter and it’s not easy for him to talk about it. He played his most inspired football over the next six games as the football field became his sanctuary.
“He still was a captain of the team, came to practice every day, just brought all the love there and intensity,” Jones said.
• • •
Now in his redshirt freshman season at Penn State, Carter has a chance to do something special for the Nittany Lions.
He ranks second on the team with 23 catches for 279 yards and a touchdown through six games. He was recently named to the watch list for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end.
It’s an honor that’s eluded Penn State tight ends since the award’s inception in 2000.
Andrew Quarless, now on injured reserve with the Green Bay Packers, was the last Penn State player to be named to the award’s watch list when he garnered the accolade before the 2009 season. Quarless responded that fall by posting a 41-catch, 536-yard season, statistically the best season for a tight end in program history.
Carter is on pace to surpass Quarless’ numbers.
“He’s got probably one of the best set of hands on the team, he’s got a lot of talent and he’s a hard-worker,” quarterback Matt McGloin said. “I’ve known for a long time that he’s going to be something special.”
Carter has been put in the perfect situation to make an impact.
Although his initial goal when he got to Penn State and redshirted last season was to pack on weight to be able to fit into Jay Paterno and Galen Hall’s offense as a block-first tight end — every school that recruited him wanted him to gain weight — that all changed when Bill O’Brien was hired.
Known for his offensive approach, O’Brien came to Penn State fresh off the 2011 season spent coordinating the New England Patriots’ offense. Under his tutelage, Patriots’ tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined to haul in 169 passes for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns. The two players saw a combined 82-catch, 1,128-yard, eight-touchdown increase in their numbers from the previous season with O’Brien directing the offense.
Carter, described by teammate and Penn State’s leading receiver Allen Robinson as a “football fanatic,” knew all about O’Brien’s offensive philosophy before he was hired.
“When I first heard his name come up with the coaching candidates, that was my pick. That’s who I wanted the whole time,” Carter said. “And once he did get picked, I just got a bunch of text messages saying, ‘There you go, man. You’re going to be the next this, the next that.’ ”
Carter suddenly felt the pressure. When he saw the playbook for the first time, he was skeptical of his ability to pick it up.
“Spring ball, when we came in here, it was a little overwhelming. I’m not going to lie,” Carter said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to learn this.’ I knew playing the ‘F’ I had to know a lot of different things.”
In O’Brien’s offense, the "F" tight end is the primary receiving tight end. Carter fits the mold. At 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, Carter is big enough to block when needed, but is also expected to run intermediate to deep passing routes.
The "Y" tight end in Penn State’s offense, played primarily by seniors Gary Gilliam and Matt Lehman, is reserved for a bigger player who is expected to block 60 percent of the time. The "Y" will also run short routes. By comparison, Gilliam and Lehman weigh in around 260 pounds.
“He’s a very instinctive player, and he’s one of those football players that you only have to tell once,” O’Brien said. “There’s a difference between being smart in class and smart on the field. Some guys don’t have both. Some guys are very bright students but not as smart on the field or vice versa, and this guy has both.”
Now six months removed from when he was intimidated by the playbook, Carter, who posted a 3.15 GPA during the spring semester, feels plenty comfortable with his role and ability to learn.
He spends much of his week in positional meetings when he’s not in class. A lot of his time is spent with tight ends coach John Strollo, who Carter credits with teaching him better blocking technique for when he is asked to open holes. Most of his film work is done with O’Brien at his side, however.
“Pre-snap reads, I’ve gotten a whole lot smarter with coach O’Brien here,” Carter said. “I never really read coverages before the play. I never saw blitzes coming. Now I can see when blitzes are coming. I can read gaps and all of that. It’s just something that helps me run better routes and helps me get open.”
With all of the different formations O’Brien uses, Carter has had to master a lot in a short amount of time. So far this season, he’s lined up in the backfield, split out, in the slot and snugged up next to an offensive tackle like a traditional tight end.
O’Brien’s expansion of the position’s role has had a trickle-down effect on the team’s defense and how coordinator Ted Roof schemes for an opposing offense. With a shortage of defensive backs, Penn State does not utilize a nickel package — wherein five defensive backs are used on passing downs instead of the traditional four.
Instead, Penn State inserts freshman cornerback Da’Quan Davis, moves Adrian Amos to safety and allows athletic linebacker Mike Hull to roam sort of as hybrid-type nickel back.
Hull proved his worth covering Carter all through practices.
“It helps a ton because Kyle is a pretty quick tight end and he’s got some good moves and great hands,” Hull said. “Going against him every day definitely helps.”
• • •
Carter’s impact has been felt on the field and inside the Penn State locker room.
Due to sanctions handed down by the NCAA this summer that included a four-year bowl ban, which will last the duration of Carter’s college career, and heavy scholarship reductions, he Nittany Lions lost nearly every receiver who contributed heavily last season.
Justin Brown transferred to Oklahoma, Devon Smith left the program and Derek Moye graduated. Other options like Silas Redd, who transferred to USC, and Shawney Kersey, who was challenging for playing time at wideout, are no longer in the mix.
Carter has helped fill the void left by those players. He doesn’t need to go to a bowl game, he said. Carter is able to look at the situation and put it in perspective. He came to Penn State to make an impact. He hopes to leave as one of the greats. He’s sticking with Penn State for the long haul.
If he’s not the next Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates — his two favorite NFL players — Carter plans to go into medicine. He can see himself as an athletic trainer or undertaking some career related to sports.
For now, he’ll also focus on his football career. It’s what he wants, what his father wanted for him.
“Teams are going to start doubling Allen (Robinson),” Carter said with a grin. “I might even get more involved for the rest of this year.”
As Jones would say, Carter’s dad would be proud.