Sophomore tight end Mike Gesicki is, possibly for the first time in his young life, struggling on the football field.
A top receiver in high school, Gesicki made the switch from wideout to tight end once he got to Penn State, helped along the way by offensive coordinator/tight ends coach John Donovan. By frame, the 6-foot-6, 255-pound New Jersey native seems built for the role; his speed only adds to his potential. Sure, he struggled at first (admittedly so) with the technical aspects of the job, like a true three-point stance or blocking (“I’ve embraced the blocking role,” Gesicki said prior to the start of the season).
Then, this season, he was spotlighted as a starter — what a meteoric rise for the big, easygoing goofball who loves to dance on the sideline and in warmups.
But, a steep learning curve is not without its ragged edges.
Gesicki has not been playing well.
Other than a touchdown pass caught on his birthday, his highlight reel is short. He has just nine catches on the season for 85 yards, and has been targeted many, many more times than that — he’s simply dropped the ball, or it’s bounced off his hands or chest.
Against Buffalo earlier this year, quarterback Christian Hackenberg targeted Gesicki twice in a row on short routes, with nothing but open space and the end zone behind him. The tight end dropped both. Then, he rushed out late on special teams as Penn State was forced to kick to end the drive.
Against Ohio State last weekend, Hackenberg had a chance to connect to a wide-open Gesicki again, this time on a 30-yard pass the former has said the likes of which his tight end has caught “all the time” in practice, and it simply bounced off Gesicki and fell incomplete.
From what head coach James Franklin, Hackenberg and Gesicki himself have alluded to at various times in the past few weeks, things have been tough for the sophomore, who admitted he pays close attention to the things people say about him online, both the good and the bad. Two weeks ago, he said he had 33 screen shots of the nastiest of tweets directed his way, and uses them for motivation.
So this week, after the drop at Ohio State, Franklin said he and Gesicki had a lengthy conversation.
“(He) came and saw me this week,” the head coach said on Tuesday. “We had a really good conversation. There’s nobody that wants it more than Mike Gesicki. He’s very proud to be at Penn State, he is really appreciative of the opportunity that he has, and he has a lot of ability. He needs to go out and make plays. So I’m excited to see what Mike’s going to do this week in practice.
“We talked about experiences and things that I’ve been through in my life, or things that I’ve studied, or other athletes or people that have been through adversity, and if it’s handled the right way, it’s a tremendous opportunity for growth.”
Hackenberg said on Wednesday via teleconference that while he’s aware of the mistakes, it won’t change his looks toward the tight end.
“Mike’s a great player, we all know that. Everyone goes through their adversity and their struggles … but I know that Mike’s the type of dude who keeps coming to work every day and keep getting through it.
“And for me, the quarterback-tight end relationship, just keep throwing him the ball. It’s one of those things where he’s just got to work through it, and he can get through it. He’s got great teammates in the locker room, great coaching staff, and a great attitude and great approach.”
Gesicki will have to work through it, as Penn State seems to lack the depth at the position that was thought to be its strong point before the season began. Adam Breneman is easing his way back onto the field after continuing to rehab an injury, and senior Kyle Carter was unavailable last week and did not travel due to an unspecified injury. Brent Wilkerson, a junior, has been in mostly a blocking role at the position this season when he’s been in the game, and has two catches for 14 yards.
“I followed up with a text to (Gesicki) later that I believe in him,” said Franklin. “I’m excited for Mike, I’m excited for (his) growth and his opportunity, and to watch how he handles it this week.
“It won’t surprise me at all if he goes out and has a huge game for Christian and the offense on Saturday, and makes a bunch of big plays.”