Penn State’s preseason camp may not be scheduled to start until the first week of August. But for die-hard Nittany Lion fans, it is never too early to start breaking things down in preparation for the season.
So in the coming weeks we’ll be offering a variety of unique takes on James Franklin’s squad. Be sure to get in on the conversation on our premium forum.
In this segment, we talk about the top three Nittany Lions we believe are poised for breakout seasons. To make things interesting, please note we ARE NOT including true or redshirt freshmen (we’ll tackle those in different stories).
These are guys who have been around and/or have logged some serious minutes, but have yet to seriously take off. We see it happening for them this fall.
No. 3 TE Mike Gesicki
This poor guy is getting lumped into nearly every story we do that involves the offense, and usually not for good reasons. But we believe the junior tight end is that important to the attack. You know the story by now — he is coming off a disappointing sophomore campaign in which he caught just 13 passes for 125 yards and one TD, while dropping at least a half dozen balls.
Franklin has lamented the fact that the staff did not redshirt Gesicki at some point so he could have made the transition from being basically an oversized high school wideout to a true college, “hand-in-the-dirt” tight end. The rationale was that his struggles while learning to block messed up his head to the point that he also had trouble doing what had come so naturally — catching passes.
Well, barring an injury, a redshirt is now out of the question, as Gesicki is PSU’s only scholarship tight end who has ever logged a college snap. He is big (6-foot-6, 260), strong and fast. And now, he has two full seasons of being a college tight end under his belt. Further, he is in a new offense, one that we’re told has less complicated blocking schemes. Finally, he has a new position coach in Ricky Rahne.
Last year, Gesicki was the talk of the offseason and preseason thanks to his outstanding workouts and practices. And we considered him THE most likely breakout player. We’ll be a bit more measured this time around, slotting him at No 3.
And realizing full well there is a chance we’ll fall victim to the old adage: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
No. 2 CB John Reid
As a true freshman in 2015, Reid worked his way into the DB rotation, and even started a pair of games. He finished with 29 tackles and tied for the team lead in interceptions with two. He also broke up five passes, caused a fumble and recovered a fumble. Yet we got the sense he was just scratching the surface of his potential.
Reid will start at corner this year, but has the athletic ability and enough size to be moved around in the secondary. He will play a lot of snaps, and with a solid corner on the other side in Grant Haley, opponents won’t be able to avoid Reid. That’s important because he is a natural playmaker, the kind of guy who has been missing from the PSU secondary for nearly a decade now.
Consider that the Nittany Lions have not had a CB win second-team All-Big Ten honors since Lydell Sargeant in 2008 and have not had a first-teamer since Justin King in 2007.
For Reid, we expect more snaps to lead to more big plays. And that will make his 2015 effort look exactly like what it was — a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
No. 1 WR Saeed Blacknall
We know, you’re thinking this guy has already broken out, to an extent — that he has played a lot of ball in his first two seasons. But look at the stats, and you might be surprised. Blacknall has exactly 19 career catches and two touchdown to his name. In 2015, he had only eight catches.
Why does it seem as if Blacknall has done more than that? Well, because he has been a deep ball specialist. He averaged a whopping 31 yards on this eight receptions last fall and has a career yards-per-catch average of 18.9 yards.
Blacknall has outstanding physical tools. At 6-2, 215, he ran the second-fastest 40-yard dash on the team last winter (4.4). He also posted a 4.04 NFL shuttle.
He followed that up with what was by all accounts an outstanding spring. With Geno Lewis having transferred, 2015 leading receiver Chris Godwin a bit slowed by offseason surgery and 2014 leading receiver DaeSean Hamilton making the move from outside receiver to the slot, Blacknall stepped up in big-time fashion. He became the go-to target for projected starting QB Trace McSorley. He rounded out his game to include better route running, and more catches in the short and intermediate areas.
Blacknall backed it up with a strong performance in the Blue-White Game, which included five catches for 45 yards and a slick 22-yard TD grab.
Penn State has a lot of offensive weapons, particularly at receiver and running back. We’re expecting Blacknall to be the breakout player not only from that group, but also from the entire team.