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Penn State coach Bill O'Brien stands at forefront of tight end resurgence

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Leah Eder

Kyle Carter (87) advances the ball during the game against Ohio State from this fall file photo.

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Split out wide left in single coverage on fourth down, Penn State tight end Kyle Carter jostled with an Iowa defender before waving his hand back toward the line of scrimmage.

When Matt McGloin saw Carter’s pink glove go up, the quarterback lofted the ball toward the sideline. Carter reached his long arms over the cornerback to make a circus catch before breaking loose to pick up another 25 yards, setting up a Penn State touchdown.

With the build of a linebacker and the sticky hands of a wide receiver, Carter is a can’t-miss option for any quarterback. The redshirt freshman is the latest product of coach Bill O’Brien’s pro-style offense, which has been at the forefront of a tight end revitalization in professional and college football.

More and more, at every level, coaches are beginning to see tight ends as more than just blockers and check down options. They are now pass catchers too fast for linebackers and too big for cornerbacks. They create mismatches for opposing defenses and nightmares for defensive coaches, as they line up in the slot, backfield and out wide.

But for Penn State tight ends coach John Strollo, it’s not a revelation at the position. It’s just about getting the ball into the hands of your best athletes.

“We’ve used anybody who has unique talents,” Strollo said. “We just let them use those talents.”

O’Brien coached two of the NFL’s best tight ends as an offensive coach with the New England Patriots — Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, who holds NFL records for single season receiving yards (1,327) and touchdowns by tight ends (18). O’Brien said when both players showed up to rookie mini-camp in 2010, he knew he had two “uniquely talented guys.”

The NFL has become a pass-happy league during the last decade, and more and more, offensive coordinators are getting tight ends involved.

In 2004, there were just five tight ends in the NFL targeted 100 or more times, according to FFToday.com. From 2009-2011, an average of more than seven tight ends were targeted that many times.

Bringing it with him

O’Brien’s offense allowed players to begin rewriting Penn State’s record books in just his first season. Tight ends have been a major part of that.

Under Penn State’s old coaching staff, tight ends were used more in blocking. The Nittany Lions didn’t throw the ball as much to begin with, especially in 2010 and 2011 when they couldn’t find consistency at quarterback.

Now, the tight end position has become a focal point of the Lions’ balanced attack. Four tight ends accounted for 82 receptions, 1,090 yards and 10 touchdowns combined in 2012. Last season, two tight ends — Andrew Szczerba and Kevin Haplea — accumulated 15 catches, 122 yards and a touchdown between them.

O’Brien has two different tight end positions on his roster — F for the pass catchers, and Y for the blockers, although there is a good amount of overlap in assignments for both. Carter and sophomore Matt Lehman are Fs, while freshman Jesse James and junior Gary Gilliam are listed as Ys.

Carter, who had just one Division I offer coming out of high school, said at the beginning of the season he wouldn’t have seen the field at his current 6-foot-3, 247 pound stature with the old staff. In his first year on the field with O’Brien, he caught 36 passes for 453 yards and two touchdowns in just nine games. He was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media.

“I would have had to add about 25 pounds and would’ve been used mostly for blocking,” Carter said.

An athlete’s game

Scout.com recruiting analyst Scott Kennedy said football takes the least amount of skill of any of the four major American sports, and described it as “an athlete’s game.” He said skills like catching and route running can be picked up easily, where as hitting a curveball in baseball takes years to master.

Lehman attended Shippensburg University with the hopes of joining the track and field team before transferring to Penn State and joining the scout team last year. With O’Brien guiding the program, Lehman found the field and took advantage because of his hard work, as well as his size and athleticism, the head coach said.

“To get coach O’Brien was just a blessing,” Lehman said. “He puts us in a position to be successful and we follow through.”

Athleticism is key in any sport, but tight ends are especially able to transition to football because most have a background in other sports, Kennedy said. If a player has a basketball background, he already knows how to grab rebounds or use breakaway speed to get to the basket. Football isn’t much different.

Chargers tight end Antonio Gates played basketball at Kent State, then signed with San Diego as an undrafted free agent in 2003. He was an All-Pro just two years later. New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham played hoops at Miami for four years, then stayed for graduate school to play a season of football.

Despite having little football experience, Graham measured incredibly at the 2010 NFL Combine. The 6-foot-6, 260-pounder ran a 4.56 in the 40-yard dash and jumped 38.5 inches in the vertical. The average wide receiver at that combine ran a 4.506 and jumped 38.

So someone like Graham, although he had little football playing experience, had the size, speed and athleticism to excel in the NFL. In 2011, he broke the NFL’s single season record for receiving yards by a tight end until Gronkowski broke it later that same day.

Learning curve

While a superb athlete can play tight end with the physical attributes, excelling in O’Brien’s offense is another story. It takes an extra measure of dedication off the field and in meeting rooms.

James, a 6-foot-7, 247-pound true freshman last season, said he can watch the Patriots’ offense with Gronkowski and Hernandez and see what O’Brien left behind and brought to Penn State.

But it wasn’t always that easy for James to pick up on a pro-style offense with so many different reads, options and changes available to the quarterback at the line of scrimmage.

O’Brien said behind quarterback, tight end is the most difficult position to learn in his offense. Lehman said the position’s assignments can change almost every play at the line of scrimmage, and he always has to be aware of what McGloin was barking.

James, the only member of the 2012 recruiting class to graduate high school early and enroll in January, struggled to learn his responsibilities early on. But the upperclassmen always made sure he was paying attention in meetings to ensure he’d be ready by August.

Once James, who caught five touchdowns in 2012, got the offense down, the rest was just fine-tuning his physical tools. James said he never wanted to play wide receiver because he was always too slow, until hard work pushed him over the threshold to make him a dangerous redzone threat in the form of an effective tight end.

“We’re pretty much still receivers, just with a bigger body,” James said.

Developing a tradition

O’Brien, the Big Ten Coach of the Year, has all four of his producing tight ends returning next year. Adam Breneman, the No. 1 tight end recruit in the country for 2013 according to ESPN, enrolled earlier this month. Breneman has tweeted about joining “Tight End U,” a play off of Penn State’s famous moniker “Linebacker U,” in hopes of doing the same at another position.

Carter, as just a redshirt freshman, had his eyes set on Andrew Quarless’ Penn State single-season reception record by tight ends (41). Because of injuries, Carter finished five shy.

But there’s something to be said about O’Brien’s ability to take a guy like Carter, who got no love from college coaches out of high school, and make him elite.

“It’s just a matter of being willing to use [tight ends],” Kennedy said. “And O’Brien knows he wants to do that.”

O’Brien wants to do it so much, he’s even had all four of his tight ends on the field at once. Because they can line up wide, on the line of scrimmage or even in the backfield, the position is more versatile than ever with this prolific, pro-style offense. And Penn State’s tight ends have taken full advantage of O’Brien’s brainchild.

“They are smart, tough, they can do both, they can block, run routes, catch,” O’Brien said. “Some guys are better blockers than route runners; some are better route runners than blockers, but they all work hard, and they’re all instinctive players, and I hope we can continue to grow in that position.”

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Leah Eder

Kyle Carter (87) advances the ball during the game against Ohio State from this fall file photo.

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