The 2014 Nittany Lions will be forced to lean heavily on their stable of diverse tight ends. Luckily, former head coach Bill O'Brien left the team with what should be the deepest group in the conference, if not the country.
While at Penn State, O'Brien used his former experience with the Patriots to recruit tight ends and succeed with them on the field.
In his last year as New England's offensive coordinator, tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski combined for 169 catches and over 2,200 yards.
Those kind of numbers get the attention of high school recruits. In an interview with Victory Bell Rings shortly after his commitment, Adam Breneman admitted he'd taken notice:
I just didn’t think that the previous system was a great fit, athletically, offensively. There haven’t been a lot of tight ends utilized in the Penn State offense recently and it was important to me to go somewhere that I can become the best football player I can be. The addition of Bill O’Brien and his accomplishments obviously changed some things in that aspect.
Breneman signed with Penn State as one of the top high school tight ends in the country and will be a sophomore in 2014. Despite his talent, he may currently be third on the depth chart.
Jesse James and Kyle Carter have combined for 94 receptions and 11 touchdowns over the last two seasons, and Carter was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team following his 2012 campaign. Both of them have two more years of eligibility.
Thanks in large part to O'Brien, 4-star tight end Mike Gesicki will join the team this summer. Gesicki, the sixth-ranked tight end recruit in the country, committed to O'Brien in the fall and stuck with Penn State after James Franklin took over.
In Carter, James, Breneman and Gesicki, O'Brien left a gift for Franklin that could affect his career at Penn State.
As a head coach, Franklin's offenses haven't been very tight-end-friendly. During his three years at Vanderbilt, no tight end had more than 16 catches in a season. In 2013, three tight ends combined for just 20 catches.
However, he didn't have the stable of versatile tight ends that he has now. He also had a standout receiver in Jordan Matthews—a luxury he won't have in 2013.
While he'll need to get creative to get all of them involved, Franklin has a chance to create mismatches on the field while spiking interest off it.
At 6'7" and with great speed, James is an impossible cover for both linebackers and safeties. He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2011 that his 40-yard dash time was around 4.65.
Carter is the smallest of the four at 6'3", but probably has the best hands of the group. Gesicki may start his career at wide receiver, where his 6'5" frame and leaping ability will make him a nightmare for defensive backs.
Breneman is now fully recovered from an ACL tear suffered two summers ago and could be the best all-around tight end on the roster.
If Franklin can utilize these ultra-talented players, he'll have success on the field and catch the eye of future tight end recruits. Ultimately, he can build long-term success from O'Brien's time in the NFL.
There's no doubt that the staff is aware of the talent it has and is working on getting the players onto the field together.
With no established go-to receiver on the team, look for quarterback Christian Hackenberg to lean heavily on his tight ends in 2014. Thanks to O'Brien, he does have some go-to players at that position.