Tight ends embrace expanding role
James Franklin knows the pass-catching ability his tight ends possess.
Returning Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman this season, all of whom combined for 58 receptions for 741 yards and seven touchdowns last year, Franklin enjoys some of the best talent and depth of any tight end unit in the Big Ten. Adding a healthy Brent Wilkerson and true freshman Mike Gesicki to the mix, and his emphasis on the critical nature of the corps' performance this season crystallizes.
Maybe not in the sense fans have come to expect out of the position, though.
Concentrating on the benefits the tight ends can bring to the running game and pass protection for quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the asset of having an entire unit capable of making big plays down the field as well as in the blocking game has become a major focus.
"They're going to need to be able to impact us and have the ability to impact us in both the run and the passing game," Franklin said. "Their blocking in the running game is really going to help our offensive line mature and grow. Especially if that can be a real strength, I think that can really help us.
"Based on film study, that hasn't really been the case. They've been receivers. If we could get them to understand and figure out how to be dominant in the running game, that's going to make them so much more effective in the passing game as well. That's going to create much more big plays out of that position, and we need those guys and they have it in talent and they have the ability and they have the maturity to do that."
The message has seemingly taken hold.
Surveying the group of tight ends poised to make the biggest impact this season, the summer has seen a significant amount of time spent working individually and as a group on improving blocking technique and the commitment in which it accompanies.
"If we can't block, you're just a big, slow wide receiver. You're not much good," Breneman said. "So we need to be multi-dimensional and be able to go in there and when three of us go on the field, are they going to run a power formation or are they going to spread out? We need to be able to do all of that."
Wilkerson echoed Breneman's sentiment.
"We've definitely been working on more blocking. They want us to block because they say if we can't block, they might as well put wide receivers out there. So we all gotta block," Wilkerson said. "It's definitely a challenge. (Franklin) challenges us every day to get better as a blocker because he knows we all can catch and run with the ball and stuff like that, so that's going to separate us. As a whole, if we can block better it'll just open things up more for the offense."
Understanding the challenges facing the offense at wide receiver with its young, inexperienced core and along the offensive line as it continues to gel, the significance of their play this season isn't lost on the tight ends.
"It's definitely a big responsibility, that's why we've all been working hard, all have been putting in extra work because we know we have a big part to do in this offense as a whole," Wilkerson said. "It's not going to take one of us, it's going to take all of us. It's a long season and we just gotta keep pushing and work on the small things.
"It's definitely an opportunity. You gotta take it as an opportunity that you can take advantage of. They're laying it out for us and all you gotta do is take advantage of it, have a good camp and prove that you can play and they'll put you out there on Saturdays on the field."
If Franklin's message translates to success in those departments, his vision for the unit this season is one that, though slightly altered from recent history, could prove to be even more robust of a role for the group moving forward.
"I would say that position from top to bottom is critical, because they're going to allow the running backs to be successful, they're going to allow Hack to be successful, they're going to allow the wide receivers not to be double-teamed on the outside," he said. "They're going to have a huge factor in this season in my opinion."