There has been plenty of message board speculation in the past two days that R.J. Luke's transfer to Western Illinois will create big problems for the 2002 Penn State offense. In addition to the normal doom and gloom type commentary that accompanies any and all bad news with the program, there are creeping sentiments that the offense will be substantially diminished due to Luke's departure.
My three word response? I doubt it. For the longer version just keep reading.
For starters, despite all the high school All-American hype that accompanied R.J. Luke coming out of high school, he had yet to ever make a big impact at Penn State. Last year was his best year in Blue and White and he had a mere 12 receptions in total. Not exactly All-Big10 numbers.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I thought he'd expand on his 2001 campaign, but by how much?
Penn State has had numerous NFL tight ends, that's for sure. But they haven't had all that many that lit up the reception charts. Take away Ted Kwalik and Kyle Brady and Penn State has had few TE's that have caught more than 25 passes in a single year.
Ironically though, two of those tight ends that have done that were Tony Stewart and John Gilmore. Gilmore caught 25 passes last year despite never having been a huge receiving target prior to that time.
It's likely now that Penn State will continue to utilize the H-Back sets they had put in place for Sean McHugh. Sean looked great in the spring game and it looks certain to me that the staff would use him in these sets. From the H-Back spot he can do some of the things a fullback does while also doing some things you'd normally expect from a TE.
Last year Penn State got 37 receptions in total from the tight end spot and another 25 from the fullbacks. Of the 25 from the fullbacks, Sean McHugh accounted for 7 of them despite playing only part time duty in the first three games.
Sean McHugh caught 8 passes in the spring game this year. While I don't believe he'd catch 8 passes every game this coming year, I do believe he'll catch passes at a rate at least as quick as the one he was setting last year.
Now, if the total number of catches from the tight ends and fullbacks combined last year was 62, is there really much doubt we could see that number exceeded this year? If McHugh caught 8 passes a game that would give us almost 100 receptions right there. While that is a little far flung, getting the sum total up over 62 does not.
With a QB like Zack Mills who is more than willing to take every dump off safety valve pass given him, I could easily see the tight ends getting 2.5 to 3 receptions a game on average. That's 30 to 36 receptions right there. Add in another 30 to 40 for Sean McHugh and several more from each of Paul Jefferson and Ricky Upton and you have 70 to 80 receptions - or more.
Which players are going to fill the tight end position?
My guess is that redshirt Freshman Andrew Richardson is going to play a lot of minutes. He's a good pass receiver and, at 6' 6" and 260lbs., he's big enough now to block from the TE spot.
I know some fans hate the idea of walk ons contributing, or even playing, here at Penn State, but you probably can expect to see each of Casey Williams and Mike Lukac. These two juniors are 5' 11" and 242lbs. and 6' 2" and 246lbs. respectively. You also have Isaac Smolko at 6' 5" and 265lbs.
Finally, you may just see Scott Paxson move back to tight end from his ssOLB spot. Scott is a big, tough, physical kid with excellent blocking skills out of a three point stance. I have no evidence this sort of move will happen other than the fact that I think it would be a good idea right now, but if they don't do this, then that tells you they are confident they can field a good offense without moving players around.
R.J. Luke most definitely added a good pass catching element to the plan this year, but to suggest the team will falter without him seems to me like panic talk. The evidence suggests Penn State can do well with the talent they have on the roster right now.
Luke Transfer Hardly Spells Doom
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