Penn State’s tight ends caught a combined 15 balls in 13 games last season. Through just four games, tight end Kyle Carter has caught 16 himself.
Welcome to the Bill O’Brien era.
After frequently targeting the dynamic duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in New England, O’Brien has continued to call a tight end-friendly offense in Happy Valley. With five different tight ends having received a pass, they have already doubled the team’s receiving yards and touchdowns from this position last year.
O’Brien warned fans that his tight end corps in New England — which combined for 24 touchdowns in 2011 — would not be reincarnated through the Lions’ offense this year.
However, O’Brien’s new crop of tight ends has certainly done its best impression, having caught 24 balls for 284 yards and three touchdowns.
Redshirt junior Matt Lehman credits his coach’s handling of the offense for much of the group’s success so far.
“We’re a pretty tight-knit group and coach O’Brien is putting us in the position to be successful,” Lehman said. “A lot of rotations keeps us fresh and I really like the way that coach O’Brien handles his tight ends.”
Despite entering this season with a combined zero catches, players such as Lehman and Carter have quickly adjusted to O’Brien’s play-calling style. O’Brien utilizes an “F” tight end that is primarily a receiver who splits out wide frequently, along with a “Y,” mainly used as a blocker.
Carter, the team’s starter at the “F” position, is second on the team with 190 receiving yards. The sophomore had an impressive performance against Temple on Saturday, highlighted by two consecutive catches to set up a Matt McGloin rushing touchdown at the end of the first half.
Carter said he assumed tight ends would have a bigger role this season, but didn’t expect O’Brien to target him this much.
“I just knew if I do what I had to do, he would put the ball in my hands and I just had to make the plays myself,” Carter said. “So it’s great for me.”
He added that McGloin’s chemistry with the tight ends has helped each of them make a swift transition to the new scheme. Garry Gilliam, Jesse James and former quarterback Paul Jones have also caught passes from McGloin this season.
Quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher said O’Brien’s complex formations have allowed McGloin to find his tight ends open on many occasions.
“We don’t just line up in one formation. We’re multiple,” Fisher said, “we’re versatile. We got guys moving all over and it’s hard to find our guys and we create a lot of matchup problems.”
Carter said his understanding of the playbook certainly didn’t occur overnight. O’Brien actually told the tight ends they have to process more information than any offensive position except the quarterback, due to their versatility in this offense.
Yet, the sophomore said all of the studying was worth it for the tight ends, because it supplies a brand new staple to the team’s gameplan.
“They can’t key in on one person,” Carter said. “Allen [Robinson]’s been definitely getting a lot of the catches but there’s still other people that are going to catch the ball. And everyone can make the play, so whoever [O’Brien] puts in is going to make that play.”