Bill O'Brien came to Penn State with a bit of reputation. His offense while with New England was at the forefront of a new NFL trend that utilizes tight ends like never before. Both Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski put up stellar numbers under O'Brien, combining for 24 touchdowns and over 2,200 yards in O'Brien's last season with the Pats, according to pro-football-reference.com.
The tight ends on this Nittany Lions team took notice, as did high school recruits. In fact, O'Brien's reputation as a tight end-friendly coach helped him land Adam Breneman in the class of 2013 and helped secure a verbal commitment last month from standout recruit Mike Gesicki.
Both were likely sold on O'Brien's success in the NFL as well as what he was able to do last year with a group of unknown tight ends on the Nittany Lions roster. He took a pair of freshmen tight ends and led them to seven combined touchdowns in an offense that leaned heavily on the position.
|Penn State Tight Ends in 2012, 2013|
|Kyle Carter (9 games)||36||453||2|
A year ago, O'Brien admitted that tight end is the second-most difficult position to learn in his offense, behind only the quarterback. However, it appeared that the guys on the roster had a full grasp as they led the conference in receptions by tight ends.
For some reason, things are different this year.
Penn State's offense has seen its share of struggles at various times and finds itself in a rut right now, averaging less than 14 points in the last three games.
When looking for the culprit, it's easy to see that stud wide receiver Allen Robinson isn't the problem and has just set the single-season yardage record for Penn State. In addition, the Nittany Lions have produced a running back with at least 98 yards in each of the last three games. Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak have each gone over 150 yards in a game in the last two weeks.
In those three games, the tight ends have only combined for eight catches. Kyle Carter and Jesse James have had just two each.
Bill O'Brien on Tight Ends: "They're smart guys. That position is very difficult to learn; second only to quarterback."— Jeff Nelson (@GoPSUJeff) April 11, 2013
Entering the season, many believed that the tight end position was primed for even more success than in 2012. A freshman quarterback would most likely rely on his big, sure-handed targets and the addition of blue-chip prospect Adam Breneman would only add to the talent level.
Breneman has just nine catches on the year—four in the last five weeks.
The emergence of Brandon Felder as a second wide receiver has played some role, along with the stellar season that Robinson is putting together but still something is missing. Too often, Penn State gets into third down situations and fails to utilize the tight ends as chain-movers.
Last year, the 6'7" James hauled in five touchdowns and was a terrific red-zone target with a massive wing span. In 2013, he has just one touchdown.
There may be no simple fix to the offensive woes plaguing Happy Valley right now. There's no guarantee that Kyle Carter and Jesse James can make the plays that they did last year.
The only thing we know headed into the home stretch of the season is that there are a couple winnable games left on the schedule and Penn State has the talent to produce.
The running game has had success and Allen Robinson is a terror for defenses.
Christian Hackenberg is the real deal and has a shot to throw for 3,000 yards as a true freshman.
What seems to be missing from this offense that last year's team possessed was the ability to create mismatches with the tight ends.
Luckily for the Nittany Lions, a primer game against Purdue is slated for this Saturday. If O'Brien wants to try some things out with his offense, this will certainly be a good week for it as the Boilermakers possess the worst defense in the conference.
Don't be surprised if you see one or more of the elite tight ends in his stable have huge games Saturday afternoon to set the tone for Nebraska and Wisconsin. As it stands now, this offense may not be strong enough to outscore any of its last three opponents, Purdue included.
All Stats Courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.