Penn State camp starts Friday, so we started a series earlier this week addressing the Nittany Lions’ five biggest question marks entering the 2018 campaign.
We detailed whether or not Miles Sanders can successfully replace Saquon Barkley, what’s going on at linebacker and what defensive tackle will look like this season. Now, we’re on to Question No. 4:
How will Penn State replace Mike Gesicki’s production?
He didn’t earn the honor, according to our 12-expert panel. But by statistical standards, Gesicki is the greatest tight end to come through Happy Valley.
Gesicki left Penn State with the most receptions (129), receiving yards (1,481) and touchdowns (15) by a tight end in program history. The Miami Dolphins draft pick ranks ninth all-time on Penn State’s receiving yards chart and is the only tight end to crack the top 15.
Similar to the case of Saquon Barkley, it won’t be one player that replicates Gesicki’s impressive numbers. It’s going to take a collective effort. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Penn State’s possible tight end options, offensive tweaks and bottom line.
Of the returning tight ends, Jonathan Holland received the most playing time in 2017 and landed on July’s Mackey Award watch list. Thing is, though, neither of those points are particularly impressive. Holland was on the field for 8.8 percent of Penn State’s snaps last year, per 247 Sports, and a total of 64 tight ends ended up on the watch list. Holland looks like the favorite to land the starting gig, but the edge is a slim one.
Alongside him are more question marks. With Holland limited in the spring, Danny Dalton frequently ran with the first team; strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt said Dalton was “phenomenal” during winter workouts and “works hard in everything he does.” If the injury-plagued Nick Bowers is healthy, he will factor in, and redshirt junior Joe Arcangelo, who scored in the Blue-White Game, will compete, as well.
All told, there isn’t much production between the returning options. Holland, Dalton, Bowers and Arcangelo have a combined four catches for 31 receiving yards. Gesicki surpassed those numbers in the first half of Penn State’s 2017 season opener.
So numbers-wise, there is really no difference between the four returners and Penn State’s two freshmen: Zack Kuntz and Pat Freiermuth. Kuntz — 6-foot-7 pass-catcher — enrolled in January, while Freiermuth — a 260-pound “road grader,” according to James Franklin — arrived in May.
Both were four-star recruits, and both have plenty of potential. At the very least, Kuntz and Freiermuth can play in four games without losing their redshirt, thanks to the NCAA’s newly-implemented rule. If the two take the field against Appalachian State, Pitt and Kent State, maybe one of them takes the job and runs with it. But Franklin said in December that Kuntz “doesn’t have to get on the field as a freshman” and Freiermuth has “a really bright future.” Those comments were made before the NCAA’s new rule, but it’s unclear if Freiermuth and Kuntz will end up playing a significant role in 2018.
If no one from that group of six tight ends stands out in fall camp, could Penn State do without a tight end completely? Well, no. But maybe in spots.
In the Blue-White Game, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne rolled out a wrinkle: 20 personnel (two running backs, three wide receivers, zero tight ends). Miles Sanders lined up to the left of quarterback Trace McSorley with Mark Allen on the right. Allen caught a pass out of the package.
Allen, a fifth-year senior, could carve out that niche role. But imagine five-star freshman Ricky Slade in the same backfield as Sanders. It would be a perfect way to get Slade — the No. 27 overall prospect in the 2018 class, per 247 Sports’ composite rankings — some touches and take pressure off an inexperienced tight end group.
And this probably isn’t the only new look Rahne will implement, either.
No matter what fresh packages Rahne comes up with, Penn State still needs a starting tight end.
None of them are going to challenge Gesicki’s single-season receiving records in 2018. And given Penn State’s RPO system, it would be tough for new tight ends coach Tyler Bowen to alternate who’s out there situationally — Holland on passing downs, Freiermuth for blocking, etc.
Bowen, Rahne and the staff have less than a month to figure out who their guys are, and it won’t be easy.
“I think there’s going to be a really good battle,” Franklin said.