James Franklin isn’t ready to name a starting tight end. But a few days into fall camp, one pass-catcher is leading the race to succeed record-setting mismatch Mike Gesicki.
When asked if there was any early separation in the tight end group — where Franklin and assistant Tyler Bowen have five options to choose from — the head coach mentioned redshirt junior Jonathan Holland first and foremost.
“I think Holland’s really doing some nice things. He’s really had a good offseason, good spring, and he’s been able to build on it,” Franklin said after Wednesday’s practice. “Obviously I’m not ready to make any announcements or anything like that. (Nick) Bowers is doing some good things, as well. (Danny) Dalton is doing some nice things. But I would say right now, Holland probably has been the most consistent.”
The praise for Holland makes sense. The Maryland native earned 8.8 percent of tight end snaps in the 2017 regular season, per 247 Sports. Gesicki — who has the most receptions (129), receiving yards (1,481) and touchdowns (15) for a tight end in Penn State history — garnered a staggering 76.75 percent. Tom Pancoast — another departed senior — had 11.8 percent, taking over Holland’s backup role midway through the year.
Bowers, arguably the next-best option in 2018, was on the field for 2.3 percent of snaps, making his collegiate debut at Northwestern following a long-term injury. Dalton, who worked with the first team in the spring, did not play in 2017. And of course, true freshmen Zack Kuntz and Pat Freiermuth were still in high school while Holland was building a rapport with quarterback Trace McSorley.
Holland, who has just three career receptions for 15 yards, has “always been a guy who can make plays in the passing game,” according to Franklin. The coach is especially pleased with how the tight end is maturing as a blocker.
Holland, meanwhile, remains concentrated on making those traits regularities.
“Consistency, whether it’s physical or mental consistency throughout the drive, throughout the game,” Holland said, when asked to describe his primary focus in camp. “And then it’s just being someone reliable. If the ball was coming 88’s way, he was going to make a play on it.”
Added Bowen, Penn State’s tight ends coach: “I tell the guys all the time that if we can’t be pass-catchers with our big bodies, we might as well put another receiver in, and they’ve embraced that.”
At media day, merely one day into fall camp, Bowen admitted that “there’s a lot of unknown” about his group, and that the tight ends “still got a long way to go.” But he’s excited nonetheless.
Bowers, who caught his first career touchdown against Nebraska last year, has promise if healthy. Dalton was the No. 1 recruit out of Massachusetts in 2016. Yet to play a down, Kuntz and Freiermuth’s potential is there — and the two could earn snaps and still keep their redshirt status.
But it’s Holland with the greatest opportunity in fall camp. And he looks to make good on it.
“His time is coming,” redshirt junior wideout Juwan Johnson said. “He’s there, and he’s ready.”
Added Holland: “I still feel like I have a lot more to prove.”