Solutions for Penn State's TE replacement coming into focus
Mike Gesicki is now in Miami, hauling in one-handed catches on the practice field for the Dolphins and that comes as no surprise to his former coach. Gesicki’s departure, however, vacates a spot on Penn State’s offense as the leading receiver of a season ago, but it’s not the only opening this season in the Nittany Lions’ tight end room.
With Ricky Rahne promoted to offensive coordinator last winter, thus moving from TE coach back to his post as quarterbacks coach, Penn State hired former Maryland assistant Tyler Bowen to take charge of the TEs.
Rahne said he has the utmost confidence in the new TE coach, but the replacement of Gesicki is a question that remains open-ended as Penn State’s preseason camp heats up.
“First of all, they have had a major upgrade in coaching,” laughed Rahne at media day Saturday, “so that's been a positive statement there. Coach Bowen is a great football coach [teaching] scheme and technique. That's been a great deal for us.
“But I told him the other day when we were sitting down talking how it's always going to be hard to replace a guy like Mike. You watch the clips coming out of Dolphins camp right now and he's making all these one-handed catches and these guys are amazed. I wrote on Twitter the other day, ‘I don't know if that makes the top-20 I've seen.’ It's hard to replace that.”
Hard to replace, yes. But Rahne, Bowen and head coach James Franklin have some solutions in mind.
Three scholarship TEs return to the roster, although each have only minimal experience on the first-team lineup. Redshirt junior Jonathan Holland saw the field most last year behind Gesicki, but it was largely in a special teams role. In July, Holland was named a preseason watch list member for the John Mackey Award, for which Gesicki finished as a finalist a year ago. Classmate Nick Bowers is also a candidate for playing time after he hauled in his first career touchdown against Nebraska in November, which was the third of only three games he played last year. Injury has nagged Bowers throughout his career. Additionally, Danny Dalton enters his redshirt sophomore season without having seen game action, but between the three of them – plus a couple touted freshmen – the coaches believe that they can make up for the loss of Gesicki in part through what Rahne labeled “a group effort.”
“Every single guy who went in there [at the start of camp], I can envision them going in there, I see productivity and I see guys who can play in the Big Ten,” added Rahne. “I think that we have a very high-level tight end group and I'm very excited about it.”
With Gesicki gone, assistant coach Bowen isn’t the only newcomer to the room. Penn State also added a pair of four-star tight ends in its Class of 2018 and both could push their way onto the field, especially now that the NCAA has granted true freshmen the opportunity to play up to four games before exhausting a year of eligibility.
Zack Kuntz arrived on campus as a mid-semester enrollee in January and went through spring practice, although an injury he suffered toward the latter part of spring camp forced him out of the Blue-White Game. He returned to the practice field in time for preseason practice last week.
Pat Freiermuth is also in the mix at tight end after he enrolled in a May, a month earlier than many of his classmates but a few months after Kuntz. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, Freiermuth enters with a body type that appears capable of handling an immediate load. Kuntz, who measures in at 6-7 and 241, has a skill set – and build – more akin to Gesicki’s early in his career.
Through their short time on campus, both have already earned praise from their work ethic and determination from starting quarterback and senior captain Trace McSorley.
“They both came in with a really good mentality,” McSorley said. “Obviously Zack came in in the winter and was able to go through winter workouts with us, some spring ball, and he has a good base of the kind of knowledge and offense of our system. Pat has come in and done good things with work outs. He came in with a good mentality and he was able to be here for the beginning of the summer, so he had a little longer than other guys in his class.”
With preseason camp in full swing and the first game under a month away, McSorley isn’t counting out the possibility of either freshmen contributing in a role that could help the offense replace it’s leading receiver from last fall.
“The two of them have a really good mindset coming into this camp,” added McSorley. “They both just want to come in and learn and compete as much as they possibly can and make plays. .... If Coach Franklin sees a use for them, if they can come out and help us in the first couple games with the new rule, I guess that would be up to Coach Franklin and the other coaches, but [they will] just kind of see how that all plays out.”