Now the head coach at Penn State, O'Brien is overhauling an offense that saw the Nittany Lions' pure tight ends combine to make 19 catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns -- the last two seasons.
Expectations among Penn State fans for a dramatic turnaround by the tight ends are high. And that has O'Brien a little worried.
“I think we've all got to be really careful, because the two tight ends we had in New England were two of the best players in the National Football League,” O'Brien said in a conference call with reporters Thursday.
Later, he said, “We've got to stop with the comparisons between what we did with Gronkowski and Hernandez and what we're gonna do at Penn State.”
That said, even with an entirely new cast of characters at tight end -- 2011 starter Andrew Szczerba has graduated and his backup, Kevin Haplea, transferred to Florida State -- O'Brien likes what he sees at the position.
Back in the fold is Garry Gilliam, an athletic 6-foot-6, 262-pounder who was starting early in the 2010 season before blowing out an ACL and missing the rest of that campaign and all of 2011. Also in the mix are fast-emerging redshirt freshman Kyle Carter and big Class of 2012 early enrollee Jesse James. Add in walk-on Matt Lehman (who had a touchdown catch in the Blue-White Game) and recently arrived rookie Brent Wilkerson, and the overall talent level appears to be significantly improved.
Not Gronkowski/Hernandez good, of course. But better than what the previous staff trotted out in 2011.
When talking about his current tight ends, O'Brien picked his words carefully. He said four or five would play and that Wilkerson, “has really impressed us as a player.”
Likewise, he has kept the primary objectives for the tight ends modest.
“We're just asking them to block well and understand route technique and their assignments,” O'Brien said.
Yet even as O'Brien is trying to temper expectations for his tight ends, they are as enthusiastic as anyone about the roles they expect to play in 2012.
“Once we got Coach O'Brien as our head coach, we all knew we were going to have to step up and fill a big void in the offense,” Carter said. “And we were all excited for it. Once spring ball came around and we saw the playbook, we were all smiling and couldn't wait to get into practice. And once we started practicing and were actually getting the ball, it was just amazing.”