Blocking is the first thing Penn State tight ends work on each day. Jesse James, left, works against Tanner Hartman in practice.
By Mark Dent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- These little squares, maybe 4 by 4 feet in area, are drawn in white chalk on one end of Penn State's practice facility. At the beginning of practices, the tight ends usually congregate here under the watch of position coach John Strollo, learning another small tip about how to block or properly use their feet.
The details are intricate, and they are endless. Life as a tight end in Bill O'Brien's offense is fun -- you catch a lot of passes. You line up in the backfield. You run deep routes. It's kind of like what the tight end would do in the popular video game NFL Blitz.
But the role isn't easy. Other than quarterback, O'Brien calls it the toughest position to master.
"They're involved in all different facets," he said.
Listening to the demands of Strollo, not to mention trying to meet them, can be overbearing. In the first few minutes of practice, he already is correcting blocking techniques in the most minute way possible. Arms aren't supposed to be positioned here -- Strollo pulls his arms in. They are supposed to be positioned here -- he stretches them out slightly.
Similar attention and production for that position was not characteristic of Joe Paterno's teams. On his final coaching staff, Penn State didn't even have a coach solely for tight ends; it had Bill Kenney coaching the tackles and tight ends.
Though Penn State produced NFL talents at tight end such as Mickey Shuler and Andrew Quarless in the past several years, their roles were limited for the Nittany Lions, usually catching about 10 passes in a season. The limits are few in O'Brien's offense.
"It's a great feeling coach O'Brien respects the tight ends," returning starter Kyle Carter said. "He's showing the country what the tight ends can do. It's definitely exciting."
Practice begins with blocking, yes, but then it shifts all over the place to catching, route-running, memorizing formations and reading defenses. The tight ends are expected to be able to look at the linebackers and secondary and know when to cut, stop on their route or change routes.
"Well, we're going in motion and there might be two play calls," tight end Matt Lehman said. "They call for the play. You have a route to run and, if you see a different look off the defense, you change your route. And this all goes on within a couple of seconds. It's just a lot of things to look at."
When everything goes right, the ensuing plays give Penn State fans something to look at.
Last year against Iowa, tight end Jesse James ran a route that took him nearly 30 yards downfield on which quarterback Matt McGloin connected with him for a touchdown. In the same game, Carter had six receptions for 85 yards. He caught passes in which he jockeyed for position with cornerbacks and linebackers, and some he finished off with several yards after the catch.
Carter finished an injury-shortened season with 36 receptions for 453 yards, Lehman with 24 receptions for 296 yards and James with 15 for 276 yards (five of his receptions were for touchdowns). Though other Big Ten teams had one tight end with more than 400 yards, none had a trio with at least 200 yards each like Carter, Lehman and James.
O'Brien said those three have improved since last year. He also will have true freshman Adam Breneman and currently-injured redshirt freshman Brent Wilkerson at tight end.
Lehman suggested the offense in which they will operate has improved, too. He said O'Brien took it easy on them last year and is now making the tight ends' duties even more complex.
"We're really starting to actually get a little more complicated," he said.
• The Post-Gazette begins a week-long ramp-up to the 2013 college football season.