Learning curve steep for Penn State tight ends
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Garry Gilliam's long road to recovery officially ended 10 days ago when the tight end took the field for Penn State's first practice of the spring.
There to greet him was a new offense, one that distinguishes itself with, among other things, innovative ways of using multiple tight ends at the same time.
"It's kind of like learning a new language," Gilliam said of the new terminology accompanying the pro-style offense first-year coach Bill O'Brien is implementing.
Gilliam, a redshirt junior from Carlisle, Pa., has not played a down of football since Oct. 2, 2010, when he suffered a knee injury. Now healthy, Gilliam is part of a group of Penn State tight ends that aims to be "one of the keystones of the offense" this coming season.
Though tight ends didn't play a large part in Penn State's passing offense the past couple seasons, that figures to change drastically under O'Brien.
While calling plays for the NFL's New England Patriots, O'Brien utilized multiple tight ends and helped Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez catch a combined 169 passes last season for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns (17 from Gronkowski).
O'Brien plans to run the core of the Patriots offense at Penn State and has said that, aside from quarterback, tight end is the hardest position to learn in his offense.
Gilliam, Kevin Haplea, Brian Irvin, Dakota Royer and Jesse James are among those competing for playing time at the position.
James, a true freshman from Glassport, graduated early from South Allegheny High School so he could enroll at Penn State in January and participate in spring practice.
"These guys have had good winters," O'Brien said March 26.
"They put a lot of time in, and they're going to be a big part of what we do."
O'Brien said last week that he has been "very impressed with" Gilliam, who is listed at 6 feet 6, 277 pounds.
As a redshirt freshman in '10, Gilliam started three of Penn State's first four games but had only one catch for 21 yards before injuring his left knee attempting to block an Iowa defensive back. He tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments and also sustained damage to his patella tendon and lateral meniscus. There were also bone bruises.
His MCL was repaired first, but a staph-like infection delayed ACL surgery from November 2010 to May 2011.
"I messed up a lot of my knee," Gilliam said, with a chuckle.
After missing Penn State's past 21 games, he is back. Gilliam, who said he is in the process of petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility, said his knee is finally 100 percent, and he is not limited in practice.
But Gilliam and the other Nittany Lions tight ends still have a lot of learning ahead of them. There are two tight-end positions in O'Brien's offense, the Y and the F.
The Y typically is a bigger player who blocks well and runs short to intermediate routes, while the F is more mobile and a better receiver than blocker, according to O'Brien. The F also can line up as a wide receiver or running back.
Gilliam said O'Brien told him he will play both positions.
To help with the tough learning curve, the tight ends have watched film of Gronkowski and Hernandez, which Gilliam said has been "very helpful.
"It's just little things about like steps that they take to make blocks or the way they go into their breaks in routes," Gilliam said.
"I'm hoping I can talk to both of them and get some knowledge and maybe a little bit of help with what I'm doing because it's very similar to what they were doing."
NOTES -- Wednesday marked Penn State's fifth spring practice. The Nittany Lions will hold 15 practices before the annual Blue-White game April 21. ... Wide receiver Devon Smith, linebacker Khairi Fortt and cornerback Curtis Drake did not practice in the 30 minutes open to the media. There was no official word on any injuries, but Smith was seen leaving the Lasch Football Building before practice in a motorized cart.
First Published April 5, 2012 12:01 am