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Tight ends crucial to PSU's offensive success

| Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012, 7:24 p.m.
Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson (8) and tight end Jesse James (18) celebrate James' first-quarter touchdown against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, earlier this season. AP

The loss of Kyle Carter to a season-ending wrist injury won't diminish the importance of tight ends in Penn State's offense.

The Nittany Lions are still deep at the position, particularly with the emergence of freshman Jesse James, who is second on the team with four touchdown receptions.

James, Matt Lehman, who walked onto the team after transferring from Shippensburg, and Garry Gilliam will help make up for the loss of Carter, Penn State's second leading receiver and the only freshman to make the Midseason Watch List for the Mackey Award.

All three should play prominent roles Saturday, when Penn State hosts Indiana in a noon game. The Nittany Lions lead the country in receptions by tight ends with 62, and the group could be even more prolific next season.

Gilliam, who is used primarily as a blocker, will be the only loss to graduation, and reinforcements are on their way in Brent Wilkerson and Adam Breneman.

Wilkerson is a highly regarded freshman who is redshirting this season, while Breneman is a senior at Cedar Cliff High School and may be the top tight end recruit in the country. Breneman, who gave a verbal commitment to Penn State last spring, didn't play this season because of a knee injury, but he is expected to be 100 percent by the start next season.

“Anybody who plays tight end would be interested in what we're doing here,” tight ends coach John Strollo said.

Tight ends were an afterthought in Penn State's offense last year, but it was inevitable they would become a big part of the passing game after Bill O'Brien was hired as the Nittany Lions' coach.

New England picked tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the second and fourth rounds of the 2010 draft. O'Brien, as the Patriots' offensive coordinator in 2011, consistently created favorable matchups for New England with the two tight ends. The two combined for 169 catches for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns while helping the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl.

O'Brien said he knew from the first time he saw Gronkowski, a Woodland Hills graduate, and Hernandez at minicamp practices in the spring of 2010 that the rangy and athletic tight ends would create problems for opposing defenses.

That helped shape the philosophy he also has applied to Penn State's tight ends.

“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.”

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com.

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