UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As recently as two years ago, Penn State's tight ends coach also coached the offensive tackles. It's not that good tight ends haven't played for the Nittany Lions, but by 2011, their use of the position, among other things, appeared archaic.
Now, heading into the 2013 season, as Penn State deals with depth problems at traditionally strong positions like linebacker, it has still managed to stockpile its deepest, most athletic and versatile group of players at tight end. And they just might be the program's most valuable on-field asset in the fight against NCAA sanctions.
We now know, based on all available evidence and hindsight, that the Bill O'Brien hire was brilliant from the start. Not only is he an adept X's and O's coach who has a handle on the CEO aspects of a major head coaching job, but he blends college experience with success in the NFL, where he gained experience handling the NFL's limited roster depth -- a perfect match for a Penn State roster crippled by scholarship reductions.
Those restrictions mean that Penn State isn't often going to wear down opponents with an endless supply of top-line talent. To succeed, the coaches need to creatively use their roster, and scheme their way to mismatches. Like his former boss Bill Belichick, O'Brien will move players around as needed: Among other moves, former receiver Bill Belton shifted to tailback last year, and O'Brien has said that versatile former starting cornerback Adrian Amos will be a wild card for the defense this year, playing safety and even some linebacker.
But O'Brien is most famous for his use of tight ends, a position where versatility can exploit mismatches in today's game like no other. And even with attrition, the Nittany Lions are poised to capitalize on the tight end revolution better than any college team in America.
Jesse James in the slot:
The advent of spread offense era has seen the rise of the "joker" player. In other words, they are movable chess pieces who can be used at multiple positions around the offensive formation. We typically think of them as small, fast and explosive -- Percy Harvin, Tavon Austin, Randall Cobb, Dexter McCluster and, if all goes as planned for Ohio State's touted freshman this season, perhaps Dontre Wilson. These players are good with the ball in space and can be moved around to draw matchups with slower defenders, or even act as decoys.
But the last decade has also seen the rise or a new kind of movable chess piece: big, athletic tight ends. Just as NBA offenses have become free-flowing with more ambiguous positions, football offenses have followed suit, making good tight ends among the most valuable assets a team can have, with the obvious advantage being a basic matchup problem: Generally speaking, linebackers are too slow and defensive backs are too small to adequately defend the new breed of athletes at the position.
At its core, the basic skills of the tight end remain the same, which is why, in an interview at Penn State media day, tight ends coach John Strollo downplayed the evolution of coaching the position. It was about catching and blocking 40 years ago, and it's about catching and blocking now, and the position is more involved in the passing game because everyone is passing more. This is all true, of course. And it's Strollo's job to deal with the technical details of blocking, catching and route running.
But, like any play-caller, it's O'Brien's job to think about the big picture and use the field as his own personal chessboard, trying to create advantageous situations with a now-limited personnel supply.
After the NFL success of modern tight ends like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates -- great athletes who also played basketball -- in the last 10 to 15 years, coaches like O'Brien realized that few players can create mismatches like 21st-century tight ends who have made an evolutionary leap forward as receiving threats. It changed the way the New England Patriots played offense, and, last year, it immediately changed Penn State's offense. The position may still be about blocking and catching, but it also requires adaptability. Whereas multi-tight end formations used to be power formations (which they still can be, especially at Wisconsin), now they're another way to spread the field and confuse defenses.
"It's really just moving around," Penn State tight end Kyle Carter said. "We have a lot of motion. [O'Brien] just puts in a lot of different situations. Sometime we'll be out wide, sometimes in the slot, sometimes at running back, sometimes at fullback, sometimes on the line -- a regular tight end. So the defense can't really pinpoint where you're going to be at."
That's one part of it. The other part is the hurry-up, which O'Brien also brought from New England. The goal is to make the defense uncomfortable, catch them with the wrong personnel and then keep that personnel on the field by snapping the ball quickly. Combine that with 6-foot-5, 250-pound players who can line up anywhere, and the defense faces a nightmare trying to keep up and stay focused.
Jesse James at fullback:
After O'Brien was hired one of the natural reactions was to expect Penn State's tight ends to be productive, pointing to the veteran of the group, Garry Gilliam, in particular. Turns out people were right about the first part, but Gilliam, the one Paterno-era holdover with playing experience, now has happily moved to offensive tackle to take advantage of what he does best, which is the old-school blocking part.
Instead, a deep group of tights emerged to embrace O'Brien's system, including third-year sophomore Carter (who redshirted under Paterno), second-year sophomore Jesse James and senior former walk-on Matt Lehman.
James came to Penn State raw as a blocker, like most freshmen, but he played his way onto the field anyway, especially late in the season. He finished with 15 catches for 276 yards (18.4 yards per catch) and five touchdowns, taking advantage of his 6-foot-7, 258-pound frame that should have NFL scouts drooling already. Carter, an overlooked recruit from Delaware, is smaller* at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, and he was Penn State's second leading receiver with 36 catches for 453 yards and two touchdowns before a wrist injury ended his season in mid-November. Lehman was the biggest surprise as the walk-on who began his career as a student at Shippensburg but ended up catching 24 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns in his first year as a Nittany Lion.
*Smaller being a relative term. A decade ago, Penn State's starting tight end was the 5-foot-11 Casey Williams.
On top of them, redshirt freshman Brent Wilkerson, who had a great spring, was expected to join the rotation this year, although a back injury has currently sidelined him indefinitely. Then there's true freshman Adam Breneman, a top-100 overall recruit, who participated in spring practice and is fully recovered from a torn ACL he suffered going into his senior year of high school. He's expected to play immediately, despite a steep learning curve at the position.
"That's one of the tougher positions in our program to learn, second only to quarterback, especially on offense I'm talking about," O'Brien said. "These guys are involved in all different facets of the game. They're involved in the running game, they're involved in protections sometimes and obviously they're involved in the passing game. So what we try to do with them every single day is segment practice so they get work at all those things.
"I can't point at one thing and say, this is harder to learn than something else, because route technique is a lot different than what they did in high school, and obviously blocking [Penn State defensive end] Deion Barnes is a little bit different than blocking some kid from wherever in high school," the coach added.
Jesse James at traditional tight end:
In college, tight end still hasn't risen to a level where those at the position are consistently among the national leaders in receiving, like in the NFL. Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins was the nation's most productive tight end last year, ranking 79th in yards per game. It's not surprising, given that it's somewhat easier to develop these types of impact tight ends in the NFL, where bodies and minds have reached full football maturity, whereas it's a little different to take a 19-year-old freshman and have him play five or six different spots, each of which requires different skills, at a fast pace.
Despite the learning curve and inexperience, Penn State still may boast one of the deepest, if not the deepest, groups of talented tight ends in college football. Oregon's Colt Lyerla will be used in a similar capacity in Oregon's up-tempo attack. USC has a pair of weapons in Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer. Washington has Seferian-Jenkins, North Carolina has Eric Ebron, Georgia has Arthur Lynch, Wisconsin has Jacob Pedersen, Iowa has C.J. Fiedorowicz, Texas Tech has Jace Amaro, Alabama may make its offense even scarier with the addition of O.J. Howard, tight ends have thrived at Stanford and Notre Dame … and on and on.
But suddenly it's tough to match Penn State's collection of talent and proven coaching acumen at the position, even if the Nittany Lions have a big question to answer at quarterback.
While O'Brien has said he wants to dive deeper into his playbook in terms of what the backs and receivers do, that has to be balanced with the fact that a first-year D-I player will be under center, whether it's juco transfer Tyler Ferguson or touted true freshman Christian Hackenberg. But whoever wins the starting job has a surprisingly diverse and talented group of players surrounding him, from James, Carter, Lehman and Breneman at tight end to All-Big Ten wideout Allen Robinson on the outside opening the middle for them to work.
By NCAA mandate, Penn State will not be eligible to compete for championships, making the Lions a sort of sideshow in the national picture. But that doesn't mean that what O'Brien is doing isn't important or interesting.
A tight end revolution has already occurred in the NFL, and it's creeping into college football. Scholarship restrictions or not, Penn State is at the forefront, and it's the best way to stay competitive.