In its first season at Penn State, one of Bill O'Brien's most impressive accomplishments has been the stunning resurrection of tight end production.
Four players who combined to log zero snaps for the Nittany Lions last season -- Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman, Jesse James and Garry Gilliam -- have combined for 72 catches for 885 yards and nine scores through 10 games this fall.
In the final season under the previous staff, only two pure tight ends even caught passes -- then-senior Andrew Szczerba (12 catches for 101 yards and no TDs) and since-departed Kevin Haplea (three catches for 21 yards and one TD). And that was in 13 games.
So with two games remaining, tight end production has already improved roughly eightfold.
And O'Brien and new tight end's coach John Strollo have done this without even using their full arsenal of tight ends. Despite losing Szczerba (graduation), Haplea (transfer) and transplanted linebacker Dakota Royer (quit the sport) from the TE corps, the Penn State staff still had the luxury of redshirting true freshman Brent Wilkerson.
FOX Sports NEXT rated Wilkerson as a three-star prospect and the nation's 16th-best tight end during his senior season at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md. He picked the Nittany Lions over Nebraska, and held offers from Clemson, North Carolina, Illinois and Iowa.
He has spent this season on “The Dirty Show” for the Lions. Despite not seeing any game action, he has traveled to away games, an honor usually reserved for redshirting freshmen who could be pressed into action and/or who figure to make an impact the following season.
“He's a pretty good athlete,” Strollo said when asked for a scouting report on Wilkerson. “He's a great kid; comes from a great family and comes from a great program -- a very high level and high visibility program in DeMatha. He's working in the weight room, has a wonderful attitude. He's probably one of the better freshman prospects we have at any position. We're pretty pleased with him.”
What makes him one of the better freshmen?
“He's instinctive,” Strollo said. “He gets it. He's what I call 'bright-eyed.' You say something to him, he gets it. He pays attention. He doesn't let his mind drift. He focuses very well. He's a pretty good athlete. All these guys are good athletes. But he's got a little more presence to him than your average freshman.”
What he doesn't have -- at least not yet -- is great size. Of the tight ends who have played this season, the athletic Carter is by far the smallest at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds. The other three are all in the 6-6, 265-pound range.
On the latest roster, Wilkerson is listed at 6-3, 239.
On a Thursday morning conference call with reporters, Strollo said tight end is the second most difficult position to learn in O'Brien's offense -- trailing only quarterback.
“The tight end has to be able to run the ball, he has to be able to catch the ball, he has to be able to block,” Strollo said. “So it's a very interesting, multitasking sort of a thing. He's got to know all the formations. He's got to know basically everything.”
And yet Strollo added that the ability to absorb everything has not been a problem for Wilkerson and played no factor in the decision to redshirt him.
“I think he would learn it (if pressed into action),” Strollo said. “It's just that you have all these young guys. It was basically a numbers game, in my mind. If we could get Brent ready, I wouldn't have any problem playing him. But he is a freshman.”
James is also a true freshman. But he had the advantage of enrolling at PSU in January. The additional time in PSU's strength and conditioning program was obviously a bonus for him.
Wilkerson enrolled in the summer. With the talent on hand and the need for him to add size, there was no need to rush him into action.
“We felt like we had enough guys for what we needed to do,” Strollo said. “Why burn a redshirt on a guy? Let him get bigger and stronger.”