Penn State’s deepest position group has grown thin.
At his weekly press conference Tuesday, Penn State football coach Bill O’Brien confirmed fifth-year senior tight end Matt Lehman will miss the rest of the season after suffering a left knee injury against Syracuse. Sophomore Kyle Carter didn’t leave MetLife Stadium on Saturday unscathed, either, and is day-to-day with a left arm injury.
The two tight ends joined fellow tight end Brent Wilkerson, who is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery, on the injured list.
And although Carter and Lehman were key contributors last season and combined to catch 60 passes for 749 yards and five touchdowns, O’Brien said he doesn’t expect their absences to limit the offense.
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“You have to kind of relate it to a roster in a pro football team,” O’Brien said. “So you have 53 guys on the roster. So you bring two tight ends to the game or three tight ends to the game. If one or two of those guys goes down, what are you going to do? Just play with 10 guys or nine guys? No. You have to have a contingency play. We always do.”
Penn State made use of its big, physical downfield targets, implementing multiple three-tight end formations in its 23-17 win over Syracuse. In those sets, Lehman and Carter were joined by sophomore Jesse James. True freshman Adam Breneman played on special teams and could be in line for more playing time with the offense.
The Nittany Lions could benefit from moving a few players around like they have in the recent past. O’Brien hinted that defensive back Stephen Obeng-Agyapong could see some practice time at tight end and even at fullback this week as the team prepares to play Eastern Michigan at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
“What personnel group are we going to use now that we don’t have Matt Lehman?” O’Brien said. “When you lose a good player, it’s not good for anybody. But it is about the next man up and that next man might be a receiver or it might be a running back. It might be a guy that you move over from defense to do some things for you. You have to think out of the box.”
O’Brien said the team would evaluate fullback Pat Zerbe in extended roles this week.
Lehman’s left knee gave out as he tried to cut on a passing play in the second quarter. There was no contact with a defender on the play and he immediately reached for his knee. He had to be carted off the field and did not return. Lehman would have to wait until the conclusion of the season to apply for a medical hardship — or medical redshirt that would grant him an additional year of eligibility.
It is unclear if Lehman will petition the NCAA for the hardship waiver. Technically, this is Lehman’s fifth year and in order to be granted a sixth year of eligibility, an athlete must miss at least two seasons of action.
The Newport native took an unusual path to Penn State. He transferred from Shippensburg University to Penn State Harrisburg in 2010, then enrolled at Penn State’s University Park campus in January 2011. He walked on to the football team and eventually earned a scholarship. He emerged as a reliable target and sturdy blocker in O’Brien’s first season, making 24 catches for 296 yards and three touchdowns.
“I just absolutely love guys like that. Guys that overcame the odds,” O’Brien said. “He was at Shippensburg and he comes here and he tries out, he makes the team and a year later he’s on scholarship. He’s really, really worked hard to improve his game this offseason, came back in training camp and had a fantastic training camp.”
O’Brien said he talked with Lehman and gave him examples of players who suffered serious knee injuries that rehabbed and came back to lead successful careers. Michael Mauti’s situation — the linebacker suffered three knee injuries while at Penn State before he finished his college career last season — was an example O’Brien used. Mauti was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in April, played well in preseason action and is now on the active roster.
“I think he’s a guy that falls into that category if he’s willing to work at it,” O’Brien said of Lehman. “He’s got a future in football ahead of him.”
Carter appeared to hurt his left arm when Penn State attempted a fake field goal in the second quarter, when safety Ryan Keiser took a direct snap and plunged forward into Carter’s elbow. As Carter went to the ground, offensive tackle Garry Gilliam landed on Carter’s arm. Carter went off but returned to the game with it heavily wrapped. He was targeted just once.
Meanwhile, junior linebacker Mike Hull is day-to-day with an unspecified injury. Hull was hurt in the first quarter and returned for three plays after having his right leg taped and braced in the locker room.
O’Brien said true freshman safety Kasey Gaines is back practicing with the team after rehabbing a hamstring injury.