Penn State is known as “Linebacker U,” but in year one of Bill O’Brien’s offensive system, there’s a different position that’s garnering a lot of attention.
As the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, O’Brien utilized the tight end position and brought that aspect to Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions’ four heavily-used tight ends have combined for 72 receptions and nine touchdowns in their first 10 games.
The moniker “Tight End U” has been thrown around a bit this season talking about Penn State. John Strollo, the tight ends coach, said he hasn’t heard much of the nickname, but he doesn’t mind it.
“I’ve heard ‘Linebacker U’ over the years, but I don’t know who’s calling it ‘Tight End U,’ ” Strollo said. “If they are, that’s great, that’s wonderful. Maybe I’ll make them a t-shirt or something.”
Strollo, who is in his first season at Penn State, said it’s more the group of tight ends — Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman, Jesse James and Garry Gilliam — that has led to the production than O’Brien’s schemes.
“If you think about it, you get the ball to the playmakers,” Strollo said. “If you have a playmaker that’s what you do. The only guy you really can’t get the ball to is an offensive lineman.”
Strollo, who’s been in the coaching business for more than 30 years and previously coached with O’Brien at Duke in the mid-2000s, has seen his players have great success in the 2012 season. Heading into this weekend, Penn State led the country in catches by tight ends.
This is a drastic change for the Lions, whose tight ends last season (Andrew Szczerba and Kevin Haplea) combined for just 15 grabs for 122 yards. Strollo said the production from the team’s tight ends and O’Brien’s history with the position have made it easier to recruit.
“Well I think that anybody who plays tight end would be interested in what we’re doing,” Strollo said. “That’s something that’s really obvious, we’ve gotten some good input from kids. I think it’s a great thing.”
The tight end position has been revolutionized at all levels of football recently, and O’Brien has had his tight ends line up split out wide and in the backfield. This is something the coach brought with him from New England when he had standouts Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
O’Brien has also noted the tight end position is the second-toughest to learn in his offense next to quarterback.
“It’s a very interesting multi-tasking sort of a thing,” Strollo said. “[A tight end has] to know all of the formations, he’s got to know basically, everything. So you have to be very careful of your time management. We spend about 30 minutes a week at practice blocking, and everything else is formations and routes. There are various things the quarterback has to know that we need to be in tune with. It’s an interesting spot.”
The most productive tight end has been Carter, who has 36 grabs for 453 yards and two touchdowns. But unfortunately for the Lions, Carter will be sidelined for the last two games with a hand injury.
Strollo said Carter is the type of player who will be able to bounce back from the ailment and noted the redshirt freshman has a bright future.
Carter may miss the final two games, but there is good news for Penn State. Every tight end on the team’s roster has remaining eligibility. Without any major changes between now and next fall, the unit promises to be one of the deepest on the team as freshman Brent Wilkerson — who is redshirting this season — and four-star recruit Adam Breneman will join the group.
“I think we have a great group of tight ends here,” O’Brien said. “They are smart, tough, they can do both, they can block, run routes, catch. Some guys are better blockers than route runners, some are better route runners than blockers, but they all work hard, and they’re all instinctive players. And I hope we can continue to grow in that position.”