James Aims to Finish With Flourish

Sophomore and his fellow Penn State tight ends have been making more of an impact of late. But injuries have taken a toll on the position this season.

It appeared back in August that if there was one thing Penn State could count upon, it was its tight ends.

The Nittany Lions looked to have four good ones, and a head coach who knew better than anyone else how to use them. Witness 2012, when the Nittany Lions received 83 catches for 1,097 yards (13.2 per reception) and 10 touchdowns from that position.

Surely this season there would be new wrinkles, greater production, unsettled defensive coordinators throughout the Big Ten.

Only it hasn't worked out that way.

With PSU's season finale at Wisconsin nearing, here's what the Lions (6-5) have received to date from their tight ends: 53 catches for 554 yards (10.5 per catch) and five touchdowns.

Things went horribly wrong in the first half of the very first game, and the Lions have never really recovered. Matt Lehman, the guy best-equipped to do the inline dirty work, blew out a knee in the season opener against Syracuse, and was lost for the duration. Kyle Carter, who last year was second on the team with 36 receptions, suffered a severe elbow injury and never did regain the form he showed in 2012. He has 17 catches to date.

Sophomore Jesse James does have 22 catches, seven more than a year ago, and his 46-yard touchdown reception in last week's loss to Nebraska -- a play on which he caught a short pass and tightroped down the left sideline, as he did on a 41-yard play against the Badgers last season -- was a reminder of his considerable potential.

Speaking of which, freshman Adam Breneman has picked it up of late, registering seven of his 12 catches in the last four games and scoring a TD in each of the last two.

James said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning that Lehman's absence has not been a huge factor in the downturn of the unit's production.

“We just had to step in and do what we were going to do,” he said. “I don't think it affected us too much.”

At the same time, James said, “We've been used in different ways. We've had some people blocking out of the backfield and we've moved around quite a bit, but as a whole we've improved a lot since last season in blocking. Even though we haven't had the stats this season, we've become more complete players as a whole.”

He called Breneman “a good, bright kid,” a kid who tried to pick up things as quickly as possible.

“I would meet up with him, every once in a while in the spring, and go over some plays and watch some film with him,” James said. “Coming into this offense young, it's tough, but I think that we had some tight ends in the (meeting) room that had to do the same thing. We were able to help him through it a lot better than when we went through it.”

Breneman went through some growing pains, to be sure. Coach Bill O'Brien noted that he had seldom been asked to block in high school, that he was often split out wide. But Breneman has stepped it up in that regard as the season has gone on, and he certainly seems to have meshed in the passing game with quarterback Christian Hackenberg, a classmate.

And what of James? He is a big, athletic kid, and he has had his moments. But he had managed just four catches in the four games before his three-reception, 56-yard output against the Cornhuskers. There have been some drops, and there have often been times when he has been asked to stay in and pas-protect. But he hasn't been the factor he was expected to be.

“I've gotten better as the season went on,” he said. “Coach (John) Strollo helped me in practice, focusing on the small things I didn't do as well the week before. Throughout the season I'm getting better.”

He said last week's score was on a different pattern than the one on which he scored in 2012 against Wisconsin, that he ran a shorter route before turning it up.

“It looked the same because it was on the same sideline and everything,” he said, “but they were different.”

More heroics will surely be needed Saturday, against a Badgers team that has won six straight to improve its record to 9-2. And while it's always dangerous to compare scores, it's worth noting that while Wisconsin lost to Ohio State by seven, PSU lost to the Buckeyes by seven touchdowns. That the Badgers beat Indiana by 48, while the Hoosiers smoked the Lions by 20.

“It's huge for the seniors to go out with a winning game,” James said, “and huge for us to head into the offseason with a good win. We're all excited, and it will be a great game in Wisconsin.”

Or so he hopes.

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