Gesicki Grows Into Starting Role

Adding size and improving his blocking have allowed the sophomore to climb to the top of the depth chart for the Nittany Lions. But will he live up to his "Little Gronk" nickname?

Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki has heard the whispers, has heard people referring to him as “Little Gronk,” in deference to Rob Gronkowski, who (you might have heard) plays the same position for the New England Patriots.

It is an extreme example of putting the cart before the horse, and Gesicki said as much during a conference call with reporters Wednesday, as he looked ahead to Saturday’s season opener against Temple.

He is, after all, entering his second collegiate season, having recorded all of 11 catches last year. Gronkowski, nearing his sixth NFL season, has piled up 308 career receptions, made three Pro Bowl berths and won a Super Bowl ring.

So Gesicki is not eager to go there. As he put it, the comparison is made not so much because of what the two of them have done on the field but because of “how I handle myself and how I like to have a good time with football.”

He enters his sophomore season much better-equipped to handle the everyday responsibilities of his position. He now carries 254 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame, after finishing last season at 232. He dedicated himself in the offseason to improving his blocking, something he really didn’t have to do at Southern Regional High School in New Jersey, and is now fully up to speed with his assignments.

“I feel so much more comfortable,” he said.

It was not a surprise, then, that he was listed as the first-string tight end on the first depth chart of the season, which was released Tuesday.

“I’m not getting all twisted up in it,” he said, noting that others will certainly see the field.

That includes those listed as his backups – Brent Wilkerson and Kyle Carter. Adam Breneman, not so much. He doesn’t appear on the depth chart at all, after missing last season with his second major knee injury in three years.

Gesicki’s first love growing up was basketball. Said he’s been playing it since “at least 3 years old,” whether on a Nerf hoop or whatever. He began running track in middle school, then picked up football – first as a quarterback – in eighth grade.

He added volleyball in high school, and reached the point where he was ready to subtract sports – one in particular.

“I actually wanted to quit football after my freshman year of high school,” he said.

He had been bypassed by another QB on the depth chart, and his basketball career was promising; he would ultimately score nearly 1,900 points.

“I really wasn’t in love with football anymore,” he said. “I was going to focus on basketball.”

A forward-thinking coach moved Gesicki to wide receiver, and when he continued to grow he played the slot.

“I decided to make football my main focus,” he said, “and I’m happy I did.”

There were adjustments to be made when he arrived at Penn State. The very first day of preseason practice, offensive coordinator John Donovan told everyone to get down in a three-point stance, and Gesicki had no idea how to do it. In high school he had never had his hand on the ground.

“It was definitely a huge adjustment,” he said.

The veteran tight ends – Breneman, Carter and Jesse James – helped him with that, but it quickly became clear to him that he simply wasn’t big enough to block people.

“It got to the point (during the season),” he said, “where the only time I was in there was on passing downs.”

He made it a point to add bulk in the offseason, and to improve his blocking technique. He believes he has done so, and the depth chart would appear to reflect that.

But Little Gronk? Let’s pump the brakes on that one, except in a very specific sense.

“My outlook on anything I do is, there’s a time to be serious and a time to have fun,” he said, adding that when he does things with a smile on his face, “I’m going to do it better."

Now, of course, the point is to leave everyone smiling. And to begin living up to his nickname.

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