Formula for Tight End U: Size, skill, scheme

UNIVERSITY PARK – They’re big – huge in some cases – they’re skilled, smart and they move all over the place.

They also play for a coach who understands how to utilize their talents as effectively and creatively as possible.

That formula has led to Penn State’s new nickname: Tight End U.

“I definitely feel like we’ll be the quarterback’s best friend this year,” sophomore Kyle Carter said of the Nittany Lions’ very impressive group of tight ends.

Everyone knew Bill O’Brien would place more of an emphasis on throwing to the tight ends when he came from the New England Patriots, but the difference turned out to be staggering in his first season.

Two years ago, PSU’s tight ends combined to catch 15 passes.

Last year the total was 83, or 30.5 percent of all completions.

With a young quarterback this season, the tight ends indeed could be his best friends, with upwards of 100 receptions feasible.

“We know that we can be dangerous,” Carter said. “We’re really just working hard to make every play that we can possibly make and for all of us to be versatile.”

Whether it’s Christian Hackenberg or Tyler Ferguson at quarterback, he will always have the safety valve of taking a shotgun snap, looking 7-10 yards to his right, left or middle of the field and seeing:

* Kyle Carter (6-3, 243), who caught 36 passes last year and, if not for a wrist injury late, likely would have broken the school’s single-season record for a tight end of 41 set by Andrew Quarless in 2009.

* Jesse James (6-7, 257), a mountain of a man who came on strong late last year to finish with 15 catches and very well could turn out to be the best tight end of them all.

* Matt Lehman (6-6, 262), another huge target and unsung hero who pulled in 24 catches and three TDs last year.

* Adam Breneman (6-4, 235), a freshman who was the No. 1 tight end recruit in the country.

* Brent Wilkerson (6-3, 244), a redshirt freshman with a high ceiling who’s battling through a back injury.

Any or all of those guys could wind up in the NFL down the road, giving Penn State an embarrassment of riches at tight end.

“The sky’s the limit,” Wilkerson said. “We have a lot of talent in that room, and it’s just about going out there and producing.”

That’s where O’Brien’s offensive schemes come into play.

The Lions don’t just have a bunch of big receiving targets, they have a coach who puts them in position to succeed by relying on their versatility and using them in a variety of ways to keep defenses guessing. O’Brien demands a lot from his tight ends, which is a big reason for the success.

“That’s one of the tougher positions in our program to learn, second only to quarterback, especially on offense I’m talking about,” the coach 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.”

There’s a good chance on any given play this year that PSU will have three or even four tight ends on the field at the same time. And they could be lined up anywhere.

“We have a lot of motion, and then [O’Brien] just puts us in a lot of situations,” Carter said. “Like sometimes we’ll be out wide, sometimes we’ll be in the slot, sometimes at running back, sometimes at fullback, sometimes on the line at regular tight end. The defense can’t really pinpoint where you’re going to be at every play.”

Having one or two big guys with enough skill to do all that is rare. Having four or five is borderline remarkable.

“Being big and tall helps a lot,” James said. “We’re all big guys. Moving around is a big reason why we’re having a lot of success on the field. The way coach uses us, he knows when to use us, where to use us.”

The tight ends all have so much potential, and having each other to compete against every day in practice makes the entire group even better.

“Every drill, whether it’s a blocking drill, working with coach, one-on-ones, it doesn’t matter, we’re always competing, trying to improve,” James said.

“I like the competition,” Wilkerson said. “It brings out the best in all of us, and it’s good having a lot of good tight ends in the room.”

Carter and Lehman finished with more catches last season, but James emerged as a big-time target in the second half. He finished the year with a huge 41-yard TD catch in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin that gave the Lions a 21-14 lead in a game they eventually won in overtime.

“It was a great moment for the end of the season,” James said.

The newest tight end, Breneman, is the most heralded of the group as he was a prized recruit. He missed his senior season of high school with a knee injury but has impressed his teammates.

“Breneman’s looking great,” Carter said. “He’s definitely doing a great job out there with the blocking and the receiving and everything. I tried to take him under my wing in the spring and tried to show him a lot of different formations, the plays and everything. All summer we were doing a lot of route running and stuff.”

O’Brien gets most of the credit for the tight ends, but position coach John Strollo was called “an awesome technician” by James. He also said O’Brien has done great work teaching the tight ends how to navigate through the defensive zones and find spaces to get open.

It’s pretty much just pitch and catch at that point, and with so many big targets available, the quarterback has all kinds of options at his disposal.

“They’re big, tall, they can catch the ball, so they’re a much-improved unit,” O’Brien said, “and we’re looking forward to seeing how they do this year. “