Twelve Days — TE

Our 12 Days of Christmas breakdown of the Penn State football program continues with a position which was once a perennial strength for the Nittany Lions.

FIFTH DAY — TIGHT ENDS

MAKING A LIST, CHECKING IT TWICE: Quick quiz: When was the last time Penn State had a first-team All-Big Ten tight end?

If you said Kyle Brady in 1994, give yourself a star. In the decade since, the Nittany Lions have had exactly two second-team All-Conference picks at the position — Keith Olsommer in 1996 and Tony Stewart in 2000.

What in the name of Ted Kwalick is going on here?

This is another area where Penn State, once an offensive innovator in so many ways, has been caught behind the times. While the rest of the football world has moved toward lean, athletic, pass-catching tight ends, the Nittany Lions continue to send out one plodding blocker after another.

The irony, of course, is that Joe Paterno was one of the first coaches to use a tight end who was athletic enough to double as a wideout — Kwalick in the late 1960s. Kwalick had an incredible (for the time) 33 catches for 563 yards in 1967, the first of his two All-American seasons.

Troy Drayton brought a similar style to the Nittany Lions in the early 1990s, and parlayed it into a long NFL career. Since then, however, it’s as if Paterno has forgotten his roots. Even when State’s had the kind of long, speedy tight end pro teams covet — think Matt Kranchick last season — the Lion staff has buried him on the bench.

Not surprisingly, 2004 was another tough year for the PSU tight ends. Starter Isaac Smolko was fine, catching 21 balls for 192 yards and a pair of scores in his first season as a first-teamer. But the team got six catches for 26 yards from the rest of the players at the position. The collective blocking from the tight ends was poor, as well.

The biggest disappointment was senior John Bronson, the transplanted defensive end who had the athletic ability to make an impact at the position. But the same thing that hurt him on the other side the ball — no feel for the game — hurt here, too.

Bronson struggled so much that redshirt sophomore Pat Hall was moved to tight end and quickly passed him on the depth chart. The much-traveled Hall began the season at defensive end, after seeing time at fullback and linebacker earlier in his career.

The fact that two players who had never played on offense in a college game before this season manned two spots on the depth chart tells you something about the emphasis — or lack thereof — Paterno and his assistants put on this position.

WHO WAS NAUGHTY: Bronson had a run-in with the law shortly after the season. Though we get the sense it was not nearly as serious as police reports painted it to be, a team leader — even one whose eligibility is exhausted — has to handle himself in a better manner.

WHO WAS NICE: Smolko showed plenty of heart by undergoing midseason wrist surgery and not missing a game. Who knows how bad this position would have been had he been sidelined for an extended period.

UNDER THE TREE: Rangy Jordan Lyons played in a couple of games early last season before redshirting with an injured shoulder. A standout high school quarterback, he figures to stay at tight end with the Lions.

That may not be the case with classmate Jed Hill, whose compact build (6-foot-2, 248 pounds) appears to make him a better fit at fullback.

Meanwhile, incoming freshman Francis Claude, a Canadian import, is enrolling in the spring in the hope of contributing next season. At 6-5, 252, and with reported 4.6 40-speed, he figures to have that chance.

Another newcomer, 6-5, 240-pound Brennan Coakley from Newtown High in Sandy Hook, Conn., should get a strong look in the preseason.

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: Smolko proved to be a solid Big Ten tight end who has a shot at playing at the next level. The key now is quickly developing the young understudies and — somehow — getting more athleticism to the position.


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