As Penn State kicks off spring football practice, there’s no better time than the usual time to take our first look of the year at Penn State’s full roster. Today, we take a deep dive into the tight end position.







Tyler Warren





Tommy Friberg





Theo Johnson





Brenton Strange





Grayson Kline




Returning contributors

Brenton Strange

Penn State TE Brenton Strange

It’s a strange, new world when it comes to college athletics and eligibility, and Penn State’s tight end position is a pretty good example of how strange and new.

The five players in the group consist of a sophomore walk-on and four freshmen. But this is hardly an inexperienced group. In fact, it might be as talented a collection of tight ends as you’ll find in the Big Ten.

This is actually Brenton Strange’s third year in the program, and he started five games last season. He looked capable as a blocker and didn’t disappoint as a receiver, turning 17 catches into 164 yards and two touchdowns. Theo Johnson was a prized recruit in the 2020 class, and he had a strong season once he emerged as Strange’s backup. He caught just four passes for 56 yards, but he looked particularly good as a blocker.

Tyler Warren, another member of the 2020 class, saw some playing time and has impressed the coaching staff. But this group has the staff excited, and for good reason. There’s no doubt they’ll expect no dropoff here in 2020, even though…

Key losses

Pat Freiermuth wasn’t just a tight end.

He was a leader, a force, a massive presence on the entire offense for three seasons.

Freiermuth played in just four games last season before shutting it down to get shoulder surgery. But in those four games, he caught 23 passes for 310 yards and a touchdown. That was good enough to make him the Big Ten’s tight end of the year.

This is a player who has 92 career catches and 1,185 yards and 16 touchdowns, and he’s a likely early round choice in April’s NFL Draft.

Penn State's Pat Freiermuth jumps over defender

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth (87) leaps past Memphis defensive backs Chris Claybrooks (7) and Memphis Carlito Gonzalez (29) in the first half of the NCAA Cotton Bowl college football game, Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Don’t be surprised if…

…Penn State’s tight ends aren’t as big a factor in the stat column as they have been in the past.

The biggest X-factor with the Nittany Lions offense this fall is clearly going to be its new offensive coordinator, Mike Yurcich. How is he going to fundamentally change what Penn State does? How much is his approach going to mimic what he did as offensive coordinator from 2013 through 2018 at Oklahoma State and last season at Texas?

If it’s similar, we can assume two things: 1.) Penn State can score a lot of points, and 2.) The tight ends will be much less a focus of the attack than running backs and receivers.

On average in those seven seasons, Yurcich’s tight ends have accounted for just 19 catches, 252 yards and three touchdowns. Per season. As a group.

Penn State’s tight ends in the last seven seasons have been quite a bit more of a factor: A seasonal average of 51 catches, 588 yards and six touchdowns.

The Yurcich teams’ best seasons, stat-wise, for tight ends: 31 catches in 2015, 402 yards in 2016, and five touchdowns in the shortened 2020 season at Texas.

Penn State’s worst seasons, stat-wise: 33 catches, 299 yards and 1 touchdown, all in 2015.

Yurcich has had one tight end — Blake Jarwin — top 200 receiving yards in a season. Freiermuth, Jesse James and Mike Gesicki have all topped 300 in the last seven seasons, at least once. Freiermuth has gone over 500 once. Gesicki has done it twice (he was over 675 in 2016).

Does all of this mean the glory years are over for Penn State’s tight ends? Of course not. Coaches adjust to the type of personnel they have. It’s possible, even likely, that Strange and Johnson stand as the two most gifted tight ends Yurcich will have ever had. He’s a good coach who will figure out a way, if he wants to figure out a way, to get them much more involved.

But like Joe Paterno used to say, what you give to one, you take away from another. It’s fair to wonder whether Penn State’s tight ends will lose targets and receptions and a bigger chunk of the offense to receivers in Yurcich’s system, because that’s the way it has always seemed to go in the past.

Be on the lookout for…

Theo Johnson

Penn State TE Theo Johnson

…improved blocking.

Freiermuth and Gesicki were standout receivers, and in his own right, Freiermuth made himself a capable blocker over the years.

Strange and Johnson both looked like they can be quite a bit better than capable as last season progressed.

There has been talk about a fullback being used, and a return to some old-style power football when situations call for it. I still don’t see any need to throw a true fullback out there, but it’s conceivable that what we saw a lot last year in 12 personnel can return. Either Johnson or Strange as a de facto fullback, leading the way. It’s no coincidence that Penn State’s running game had the success it did when these two were the tight ends getting all the playing time in 2020.

The key stat

Three of the last five seasons, Penn State’s second-leading receiver was a tight end.