Taking Stock: Tight Ends
Blue White Illustrated continues its multi-part series examining the Nittany Lion roster as it proceeds through winter workouts and eventually into spring practices. Today, we'll continue with a look at Penn State's tight ends with the breakout of Pat Freiermuth and the departure of 2018 week one starter Danny Dalton:
KEY LOSSES Danny Dalton
NEWCOMER Brenton Strange
OUTLOOK As Penn State head coach James Franklin put it Wednesday afternoon at his National Signing Day press conference, the Nittany Lion coaching staff has plenty of confidence in this position.
While offering an extended answer regarding the Nittany Lion wideouts, Franklin quickly transitioned to the overall scope of the Penn State team shaping up for the 2019 season.
“There are some talented guys (at wideout) that we're excited about and obviously, we feel really good about the tight end position, and offensive line, and quarterbacks, and defensively,” said Franklin. “But we're going to be young, but we're going to be talented and it's going to be exciting and it's going to be really competitive.”
Franklin’s quick segue into his confidence at tight end should come as no surprise.
Following the graduation of Mike Gesicki following the 2017 season, the second of back-to-back campaigns in which the elite athlete led the Nittany Lions with 57 catches for 563 yards and nine touchdowns in ’17 and another 48 catches for 679 yards and five scores in ’18, Penn State needed a reliable target to emerge anew at the position in 2018.
To open the season, that answer wasn’t necessarily obvious as Jonathan Holland started the first four games, but struggled therein. Charged with just one drop on eight Trace McSorley targets, Holland’s problem was hanging onto the ball as he coughed up two fumbles on just seven receptions.
Sent to the sidelines with injury concerns, though, with Danny Dalton also sidelined due to unspecified injury after just two appearances to open the season, true freshman Pat Freiermuth was called upon. Earning his first career start in the Nittany Lions’ loss to Ohio State in Week Five, Freiermuth answered that call in the form of 26 catches for 368 yards with a team-high eight touchdowns.
“Obviously, coming in, he was a very mature player, being a post-grad guy out of high school,” said Penn State tight ends coach Tyler Bowen. “He’s done what we ask all of our guys, just get better every week. He continues to do that every week. We can ask him to do a little bit more and he’s handled that well. Nothing’s been too big so far and he’s continued to get better throughout the season.”
Assuming that development continues through the offseason and into the 2019 campaign, Freiermuth would seem to be positioned to continue what appears to be the beginning of a productive career at Penn State.
The Nittany Lions’ Citrus Bowl appearance offered up intriguing potential beyond just Freiermuth, though.
Catching three balls for 32 yards, including his second career touchdown, veteran Nick Bowers capped a comeback season. Having missed all but three games as a redshirt sophomore in 2017, the sturdy tight end returned from a three-game absence at the start of the 2018 campaign to play in each of Penn State’s Big Ten games and the bowl.
In that span, Bowers saw 188 offensive snaps according to Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics, including a season-high 33 reps in Penn State’s 33-28 win at Indiana. The most steady of Penn State’s pass blocking tight ends, Bowers also finished with a 75.0 grade in the category, above Holland (72.2), Freiermuth (71.5), and Dalton (34.6) at the position.
Encouraged by his contributions, and maybe more important, his ability to stay healthy and out on the field, Bowers will look to finish strong in his fifth year next season.
“I thought it was good,” Bowers said of his season. “I battled through some things throughout my career and I was just pretty happy to be out there.”
Less established, but similarly interesting, redshirt freshman Zack Kuntz will also be available on a full-time basis for the 2018 season.
Listed at 6-foot-7, 235 pounds, Kuntz has been lauded for his athleticism and will look to complement Penn State’s other tight ends at the position next season. And according to Bowen, in charge of a group that features a range of sizes and experience, the Nittany Lions will be better off for it.
“I think if you’re with that group every day, you know they’re close,” said Bowen. “They feed off of each other’s successes. They’re just as happy when any other guy makes a play or makes a block. They’re a very tight-knit group.”