Usually when you hear the term “triple-threat position,” it’s associated with a round ball and a basket.
The gridiron? Well, not so much.
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien see things a little differently. He is helping to redefine the term with a position that had become an after-thought to many coaches and so-called offensive geniuses — the tight end.
The term has even more of meaning this season as O’Brien returns a triple threat — experienced tight ends Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Matt Lehman — to an offense that mirrors the New England Patriots, who put up record numbers while O’Brien was an assistant coach in Foxborough.
O’Brien promised to make the tight end a big piece of the Penn State offense and he delivered last season. Carter, James and Lehman combined for 75 catches, 1,025 yards and 10 touchdowns as the Nittany Lions finished a surprising 8-4.
To put the statistics for the three tight ends in perspective, Penn State and NFL great Ted Kwalik finished his College Hall of Fame career with the Nittany Lions with 86 catches, 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The position is critical to O’Brien’s offense. On most downs, the Nittany Lions employ a Y (primarily a blocking tight end) and an F (primarily a receiving tight end). But O’Brien isn’t above moving those guys to the backfield or wideout — wherever he can create a matchup problem for an opposing defense.
“They fit into the multiplicity of formations,” Penn State tight ends coach John Strollo said. “You can take a big guy and stick him out as a wideout if you want to. Not to say that the wideout wouldn’t be more effective out there, but it controls or dictates what the defense is doing.”
“It’s a lot different than how it used to be before,” Carter said. “Playing tight end with Coach O’Brien, you definitely know you have to step your game up. You’ve definitely got to make him proud. We’re all striving every day to be great.”
This is not a position for dummies. Penn State tight ends need to know both Y and F responsibilities because each could be playing either position during the game..
“I have to know every position on the field,” James said. “I can play everything. We all move around at practice and we all can do everything.”
Carter got the most attention last season, playing the F position. As a redshirt freshman, he snared 36 passes for 453 yards and two touchdowns. Had he not been sidelined by a wrist injury, he would have easily broken Andrew Quarless’ school mark of 41 receptions in a season for a tight end.
Ask Carter what he’s working on and you might be surprised by the answer.
“I just want to get better at blocking,” the 6-foot-3, 243-pounder said. “The receiving part, I feel like I’m doing pretty well, but I could definitely get better at that. I feel like I need to be more versatile.”
James, who was at the Y mostly last season, said Strollo is a “technician” when it comes to blocking. Many hours are spent in the film room, analyzing technique so that running backs Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton or Akeel Lynch can bust off a gain.
“We’re always focused on blocking,” said James, who had 15 catches for 276 yards and five touchdowns last season. “That’s half of our position. We’re on the line of scrimmage. We have to block as good as anyone, especially with those defensive ends around.”
“I'm the Y tight end on the line, taking on a lot of blocking responsibilities,” said senior Lehman, who had 24 catches for 296 yards and three touchdowns last year. “I’ll be pass blocking, but we also get out on the routes quite a bit.”
But make no mistake, these guys are there to provide big targets for Penn State quarterbacks. Matt McGloin had no problems looking for Carter, James (6-foot-7, 257 pounds) and Lehman (6-foot-6, 262 pounds) last season. McGloin set a school mark with 3,266 yards passing and big chunks of that yardage came to the tight ends. Of Penn State’s 45 passing plays of 20 yards or more, 17 went to Carter, James and Lehman.
“We’re a throwing outfit,” Strollo said. “It’s no good having an eligible receiver on the field that can’t catch. Their role involves receiving and that’s what they do. … These guys make plays. I think their strength is their hands. They will catch the ball.”
As far as making plays, the tight ends may have a few more options this fall.
One is that the playbook is opening up. O’Brien only scratched the surface in his first season.
“I think they understand the offense better,” Strollo said. “Heck, I understand the offense better. We always talk about team and how you fit into the team. What’s your part of the play and what’s your job? They understand the concepts a little bit better.
“Last year was like, ‘OK, I’m supposed to run an out. Why do I have to run an out?’ Now it’s like, ‘I run an out to do this.’ … They’re good kids, smart kids, dedicated. They tune in and learn pretty well.”
“Coach O’Brien has taught us a lot about the different coverages and how things work,” James said. “We’re going to take advantage.”
The other thing the tight ends see taking advantage of is having Allen Robinson to their outside. Robinson obliterated the school record with 77 catches and had 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Robinson figures to be in the crosshairs of any opposing defense.
“Our job — since he’s going to get double-teamed all year — is to make our plays when we’re in that one-on-one and definitely that will help open him up,” Carter said. “We just all want to have great years and we’re all working together. If we’re doing great, then that means he’s going to get more open opportunities. It’s everybody making plays when they get the chance.
“Maybe if I’m getting doubled, then maybe Allen will be open or Jesse or Matt. We definitely still have got to make plays and get open.”
Strollo said whoever is open will get the ball — that’s how O’Brien’s offense is designed to work.
“There’s a plan to each pattern,” Strollo said. “There’s reads and whoever is supposed to get the ball, that’s where it goes. If they happen to get the ball and that’s where it’s supposed to go, they better catch it.”
But Strollo is quick to emphasize that when the contest is done and hopefully the Nittany Lions have dispatched an opponent, the true measure of how the tight ends play won’t be tallied by the ledger on the stat sheet.
“You’ve got to do your job,” Strollo said. “You might play the greatest game of your life and not catch one pass, but you’ve opened up lanes for somebody else. Or, you might catch two touchdowns and play lousy. You do your job. That’s what we try to sell.”
And what O’Brien and his staff is selling is working. The Nittany Lions landed Cedar Cliff’s Adam Breneman, the top-ranked high school tight end for this season’s recruiting class. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Breneman, who injured his knee before his senior high school season, is healthy and is looking to give Penn State a quadruple-threat at tight end this fall.
“He runs good routes, has great hands, pretty decent blocker, and he’s continuing to improve on his blocking,” Lehman said of Breneman. “He’s definitely going to be a good player for us this season and into the future.”
Whoever gets on the field knows he will have a shot at making an impact, and that’s more than a lot of tight ends can say at other universities.
“We know that we have a vital role in this team,” Carter said. “We’re real important. Even though there’s a lot of us, we all know that we have a role with this team and we have to perform that role to perfection.”