Penn State entered training camp with three experienced tight ends leading its deepest position group.
Jesse James is expected to be a force as the Nittany Lions’ top returning receiver. Kyle Carter is back after being named to the John Mackey Award mid-season watch list in each of the last two seasons. And Adam Breneman’s strong finish to his freshman season, catching touchdowns in each of the last three games in 2013, sent him into the offseason with confidence.
But rather than talk about his fellow veterans, Carter listed off three other potential contributors to underscore the depth at tight end.
“It’s not even just them two,” Carter said. “It’s Brent Wilkerson and (Mike) Gesicki and even Tom Pancoast. Everybody can just bring their own different feel to the game. We’ll really feel out where everybody will fit into the puzzle, but we got a lot of pieces.”
Penn State will be relying on its talented tight ends to produce in the passing game going into the season after some major losses at wide receiver.
The depth also helps soften the blow of losing Breneman indefinitely to an undisclosed injury last Monday. James and Carter have shown what they’re capable of during their careers, but the other options have yet to take the field for the Nittany Lions. Wilkerson redshirted as a freshman in 2012 and missed last season due to a back injury. Gesicki is a true freshman who was among the nation’s top tight end recruits in the country, and Pancoast is a redshirt freshman who played fullback during part of spring practice before moving back to tight end.
James is a proven playmaker who made 25 catches for 333 yards and three touchdowns in 2013.
His 25 grabs were good for third on the team behind Allen Robinson’s 97 and Brandon Felder’s 28. With Robinson and Felder gone, leaving an inexperienced group of wide receivers, James and the rest of the tight ends are expected to fill the void for quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Penn state offensive coordinator John Donovan, who also coaches the tight ends, said the 6-foot-7, 254-pound James has all the physical attributes to exploit opposing defenses.
“He’s the prototypical guy you think of when you hear tight end,” Donovan said. “He’s tall. He’s big. He’s massive. He’s strong. He can run. He’s smart. He’s definitely got everything you want. He made some improvements in the spring I thought from some of the things he did on tape from last year. He needs to be dominant.”
James is joined by Carter on the watch list for the Mackey Award going into the season.
After making 18 receptions in 2013, tied for second on the team among returning players with Geno Lewis, Carter is looking to prove he deserves to be on that list.
And with Breneman out, Penn State will need someone to step up and prove they can make a difference in their debut season.
It could be Wilkerson after sitting out the lasst two seasons with the injury and redshirt year. He was a top-20 tight end recruit, according to Rivals and Scout.com, coming out of DeMatha Catholic High School.
“He’s looking great,” Carter said. “I feel like he’s 100 percent. He’s been out there getting all the extra work in, never heard him complaining about his back or anything, so I’m excited to see what he does this camp.”
And Gesicki has impressed with his athleticism so far, but head coach James Franklin said he’s still learning how to block.
Gesicki left Southern Regional High School in New Jersey as the school’s all-time leading receiver.
“I think running and catching, things that deal with space and athleticism, he’s done a great job with,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to continue getting him more confident when it comes to blocking. As you guys saw, we reported earlier this summer, he benched 385 pounds for a long, lean kid, so he’s got the tools that you’re looking for to be an effective blocker.”
To be part of the unit expected to fuel the passing game, Donovan said his tight ends need to be able to block, too.
“You can’t only catch the ball, you’ve got to be able to block, and you’ve got to be able to line up in different ways,” Donovan said. “If they can’t block and they can’t think, then we’ll play four receivers and that’s what they got to know going in. If they’re able to be versatile and not only catch the ball, but block and stick their face in there and create movement and be tough and enable us to be able to present people different things with them in the game, then they’ll prove their worth.”