football Edit

Three season-defining questions for Penn State's tight ends: Entrance Exam

The Penn State Nittany Lions football season begins in less than a month, and Blue-White Illustrated is breaking down the key questions facing each Penn State position group in its new series, Entrance Exam, continuing on the offensive side of the ball with Penn State's tight ends.

Check out previous Entrance Exam stories:

Safeties

Cornerbacks

Linebackers

Defensive Line

Offensive Line

1. Who will claim the starting job? 

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One position where Penn State's coaching staff has not offered very much in the way of preseason discussion is at tight end, where the Nittany Lions must replace the impact of Pat Freiermuth, who went in the second round of this spring's NFL Draft to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Freiermuth went down with an injury that ended his season midway through Penn State's campaign in 2020, giving us an oppotunity to get an extensive look at the two players who will presumably battle for the starting job at camp — Theo Johnson and Brenton Strange.

Strange got the majority of the snaps in Freiermuth's absence, compiling 17 receptions for 164 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson also saw plenty of action, and came away with four receptions for 56 yards.

Strange and Johnson offer different physical and athletic profiles, with Strange standing at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds and Johnson coming in at 6-foot-6, 256 pounds.

Strange is slightly more experienced than Johnson, entering his third season on campus while Johnson was thrust into action as a true freshman in 2002..

Who James Franklin and new tight ends coach Ty Howle decide to entrust with the majority of the snaps will obviously go a long way toward deciding how this position group will play out in 2021, but the reality is that Penn State rates its tight end options highly across the board, which leads us nicely into our next question.

2. How will new Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich treat the tight end position? 

Penn State Nittany Lions football tight end Theo Johnson could be in for a breakout season in 2021.
Penn State Nittany Lions football tight end Theo Johnson could be in for a breakout season in 2021.

You've got to turn quite a few pages in the Penn State yearbook to find a season when the Nittany Lions weren't able to rely on a standout, pass-catching tight end, finally settling on 2015, when Kyle Carter and Mike Gesicki finished the season with just 260 combined receiving yards.

Tight ends have been a staple of the Nittany Lion offensive attack for the last several years, but with a new offensive coordinator with strong convictions and idealogies entering the fray in Mike Yurcich, could the way Penn State uses its tight ends be changed?

Similarly, with two tight ends that they seem to be high on — and another who created some buzz this spring in Tyler Warren — will Yurcich go out of his way to get more tight ends on the field?

Johnson provided some of his impressions of Yurcich's ideaology as it relates to the position this spring.

"This offense, it's really fun to play in because we'll go to do some heavy packages, 12 personnel, running the ball down their throat, and then we'll just go out wide and start spreading the field out and throwing the ball around,” Johnson said. “So as a tight end, that's something that you love to see because you get to really show all aspects of your game, that you can block with the big boys and you can catch out wide with the corners and stuff. I think it's been great playing with this new offense so far.”


3. Can Tyler Warren force his way onto the field regularly for Penn State football? What about Khalil Dinkins? 

Penn State's players and coaching staff took many opportunities this spring to express that Warren was making good progress and impressing during his reps in practice.

A three-star prospect in the Class of 2020, Warren didn't see much of the field during his freshman season, but could put himself in a position to push for more snaps in 2021, especially if Yurcich intends to put more tight ends on the field.

Another name to keep an eye on is Khalil Dinkins, another three-star tight end prospect who arrived on campus this summer and gives the Nittany Lions a fourth scholarship tight end to work with on their depth chart.

He was not one of the seven members of the Class of 2021 to enroll early at Penn State, so we're still waiting to hear about the early impressions he's making with the Penn State coaching staff.

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