Over the next week leading into Penn State’s season opener at Indiana on Oct. 24, we’ll take a look at the biggest storyline at each position. Today, we look at the tight ends.

Penn State tight end catches a pass

ASSOCIATED PRESS Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth catches a touchdown pass.

Two tight ends on the field at one time. A more pronounced role as in-line blockers. A formula that worked for Penn State in 2019.

As head coach James Franklin put it, the Nittany Lions essentially were able to use — gasp — a fullback. It was a completely different but wildly effective look that, this fall, won’t be a surprise around the Big Ten…if Penn State decides to use it.

New offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca has new plans and different philosophies, of course. (He used a tight end-sized wideout — 6-foot-4, 240-pound Seth Green — as a short-yardage quarterback — last season. So using the position as creatively as Ricky Rahne did shouldn’t be an issue.) But the fact remains, Penn State rushed for 1,117 yards, averaged 5.3 yards per carry and scored 15 touchdowns — three more than it did against FBS opponents in the season’s first two months — from November on.

Starter Pat Freiermuth and last year’s top backup, Nick Bowers, getting used to their increased role as lead blockers were just settling in at that point, and they received plenty of credit for being a catalyst.

Whether that continues this season is up for debate, given Ciarrocca’s system has not been seen and few players understandably want to hand out too much information about what it might look like.

“I love the new offense, what coach Ciarrocca is doing,” backup Zack Kuntz said. “We kind of kept some pieces that we like, and that’s the cool part about getting new OCs is you learn some new things, you keep some things from before and you kind of integrate those things into your offense. I think what he’s doing is going to be great for the tight ends.”

Bottom line is, what has worked in the past will always be an option, and if that’s the case, there will be plenty of opportunities for a young, gifted group of tight ends to forge a role this season. Whether that be as a pass catcher or a blocker.

The depth





Trevor Baker

Grayson Kline

Tommy Friberg

Pat Freiermuth

Zack Kuntz

Theo Johnson

Brenton Strange

Tyler Warren


Newcomer to watch

Brenton Strange

TE Brenton Strange

Theo Johnson was one of the prized gets in the 2020 recruiting class, and while there’s going to be a learning curve for the former Canadian high school wideout, it’s almost certain he’ll have some kind of a role this fall.

Brenton Strange showed that last season, after all.

The former West Virginia high school star caught a four-yard touchdown pass in his first career collegiate game, against Idaho. He got into just one other game, but he made impressive strides off the field and was one of strength coach Dwight Galt’s prized pupils in the offseason. He gained more than 40 pounds to help out in the run game and has become a more complete tight end ready to jump into the rotation.

“Brenton comes in every single day and works,” Freiermuth said. “I kind of took Brenton under my wing, just kind of the way he works and the way he goes about his business. I’m just really excited to see Brenton get going this year because he has been waiting his turn. Now he is primed for a big year, and I think that he’s going to come out balling.”

Numbers game

1Pat Freiermuth needs one more touchdown reception to become the all-time leader in scores among Nittany Lions tight ends. He enters the season with 15 in his career, tied with Mike Gesicki. He’s ninth on the program’s all-time touchdown receptions list.


Player who needs to shine…

Penn State was able to develop a powerful running game as 2019 went on because of the tight ends. Sure, there’s a little more that goes into it than that — the offensive line found a rhythm, the coordinator made it more of a feature, and not to mention, the running backs were pretty darn talented. But once Penn State started getting more out of the tight ends as blockers, that part of the offense went from fairly average to truly formidable.

Zack Kuntz

TE Zack Kuntz

The key there, as much as Freiermuth, was his backup, senior Nick Bowers. He stayed healthy and finally lived up to his high school hype in the passing game, but he was just as successful paving the way for the backs.

Penn State is lucky to be getting Freiermuth back, but it needs Zack Kuntz to step up and become a factor similar to what Bowers was last season in the running game.

A self-professed “glorified wide receiver” in high school, Kuntz said he has learned a lot from tight ends coach Tyler Bowen, a former college lineman, about the blocking game since coming to Penn State. He said he’s ready to show he can translate that work onto the field. And, he knows he better.

“I’m not a 220-pound high school kid anymore,” Kuntz said. “I have a little more weight, which is definitely going to help a lot; your confidence, your movements and your strength overall. Going into this season, I feel a lot more comfortable, the best I’ve ever felt from any other past year. You just want to improve year after year. Bowers did a great job of solidifying that role and being a great blocker and relying on him when we needed him. It’s my job to step into that role and get the job done for the team.”