LINCOLN — Even a casual NFL viewer last season probably caught a glimpse of New England Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez carving up opposing defenses. They combined to catch 169 passes and 24 touchdowns.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien saw that duo from just a few yards away. He served as the Patriots' offensive coordinator, and he's moved his philosophy of mobile, active, involved tight ends to the Nittany Lions' offense, where the top three tight ends have 60 catches, 760 yards and eight touchdowns between them.
It's not quite New England. But it's not Penn State's old, plodding offense, either. And it's one of the top headaches for Nebraska's defense Saturday.
“You have these tight ends who can line up anywhere,” NU secondary coach Terry Joseph said. “They're very, very good receivers. And they can catch it, and they also can be effective in their blocking. We have to be aware of their alignments, where they're at, and anticipate their motions and how the formation can change before the ball snaps.”
Penn State's offense features two different tight positions. The “Y” position is a more traditional blocking spot that includes some pass-catching routes. The “F” position has more flexibility in the passing game. Penn State moves these ends around from play to play, hoping to create matchup problems or manipulate a defense that adjusts strongly to tight end alignment.
Because the job description is so intricate, O'Brien said in his Oct. 31 press conference, the tight end role is among the hardest to learn in the program.
“That F guy can be a Y and that Y guy can be an F,” O'Brien said. “It depends on the personnel group you called and what you're trying to do with your personnel groupings. Those are two difficult positions in our offense to learn, second only to the quarterback position, because you're involved in all facets of the game.”
The 6-3 Nittany Lions are relying on several players to learn on the job. Senior Matt Lehman is the Y tight end and one of Penn State's better blockers. He's caught 16 passes for 196 yards and three touchdowns. Another Y, senior Garry Gilliam, is primarily a blocker as he has six catches.
Sophomore Kyle Carter is the top F, catching 35 passes for 441 yards. Carter got hurt in a 35-23 loss to Ohio State and sat out a 34-9 win over Purdue, but his true freshman replacement, Jesse James, caught three passes for 49 yards and a touchdown. O'Brien said James — whose 6-foot-7, 265-pound frame suggests Gronkowski — has “unlimited potential.” Carter's status for this week is day-to-day.
Joseph said that Penn State's passing attack, second in the Big Ten in yards per game, is so effective because tight ends can “body up” defenders and make catches in traffic. Their size makes it easier for PSU quarterback Matt McGloin to throw the ball in spots where defenders can't reach it — but Nittany Lions receivers can.
O'Brien has said that he most values accuracy in a quarterback. McGloin has been on the mark, completing 62 percent of his passes.
“They try to keep it fairly simple for the quarterback,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “I think he's coached well.”
How do Pelini and Nebraska's defense respond to Penn State's scheme? Nebraska typically determines its personnel based on the number of opposing running backs and tight ends on the field.
Last year, linebacker Lavonte David generally drew the tight end assignment, but it's been switched around some in 2012. Alonzo Whaley, for example, struggled earlier this year trying to cover UCLA's Joseph Fauria, so safeties and corners got involved. Dime defensive back Justin Blatchford got the assignment of Michigan State tight end Dion Sims, holding Sims to zero catches in the second half.
Pelini didn't divulge his plan this week to address Penn State's tight ends. But defensive coordinator John Papuchis Tuesday said he liked it.
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