Penn State's offense will look very different come August.
Not only schematically, as the team adjusts to a new playbook, but from a personnel standpoint. The Nittany Lions will have to replace star receiver Allen Robinson, who accounted for roughly 46 percent of the passing game last year.
Penn State did bring in four highly touted wideouts by way of its 2014 recruiting class, but keep in mind that guys like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall are still freshmen. This isn't saying they won't offer up valuable contributions, but there will still be a learning curve to an extent.
While question marks surround this group, another one is locked and loaded for 2014. The tight ends—arguably the deepest and most talented position group on the team—could help Franklin coach around the loss of Allen Robinson.
Christian Hackenberg will have some very talented tight ends to throw to come summer camp. Kyle Carter, Jesse James, Adam Breneman and incoming freshman Mike Gesicki are players who Franklin can use to set up mismatches with the opposition.
Gesicki is an intriguing prospect. As Bleacher Report's own Adam Kramer pointed out while analyzing Penn State's 2014 recruiting class, Gesicki lined up as a wide receiver quite frequently in high school. This type of experience could give him the chance to see time in the slot next year at Penn State. This versatility makes him an unlikely redshirt candidate.
This type of potential from the tight end spot doesn't appear to be something that Franklin is familiar with. Last year at Vanderbilt, his top two tight ends combined for only 19 catches 223 yards.
Yet for a group so highly praised, it statistically regressed last year from what it was during Bill O'Brien's first season in 2012. Here's how the two years stack up against each other:
|Penn State Tight End Production|
It's hard to suggest why these numbers decreased so much. Dustin Hockensmith of PennLive suggests that the reason is because Bill O'Brien wanted to keep things simple during Hackenberg's first year.
Now that the young quarterback has a year under his belt, Penn State will look for 2012-like production out of its tight ends next season if it wants to take the pressure off the wideouts. For this reason, I expect many multiple-tight-end sets to be used.
At it's core, this type of offense can do two things. First, it creates mismatches in the passing game—any particular tight end could be too fast for a linebacker to cover or too big for a defensive back to cover.
It also helps in protecting the quarterback. An additional tight end—likely lined up next to either tackle—adds more protection along the offensive line. The player could hold a block for some time before breaking off into a route. Consider it a checkdown of sorts for the quarterback.
Teams could also be forced to bring down a safety to cover the surplus of tight ends on the field. When this happens, the opportunity presents itself for Penn State's wide receivers to have one-on-one battles on the outside.
While a multiple-tight-end set creates mismatches in the passing game, it can also inadvertently help the run game. As Bucky Brooks of NFL.com writes, running this offense helps combat a defense keying in on a run play:
Defenses routinely drop an extra defender into the box to fill the eight gaps along the front line (each area between two offensive linemen/tight end is considered a gap and defenders are assigned a gap responsibility in a one-gap scheme). Against two-back formations, the addition of an extra defender gives the defense a numerical advantage at the point of attack, ensuring a free defender to the ball.
However, the deployment of multiple tight ends along the line of scrimmage nullifies that advantage and creates big-play opportunities in the run game.
In the end, it's basically a numbers game. With more tight ends on the field, the advantage can shift in Penn State's favor in a variety of ways.
Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan won't have a shortage of weapons during their first year in Happy Valley. But while the offensive depth is young and promising, they should look toward their strength at tight end to maximize the efficiency of the unit.