UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It's nine practices into Penn State's 2017 spring season and Nittany Lion tight end Mike Gesicki doesn't look back on his late December decision to return to Happy Valley for a final season in the Blue and White with any regret.
Gesicki's decision to remain at Penn State for his senior season came weeks after he helped guide the Nittany Lions to their first Big Ten Championship since 2008 and fourth overall in a gritty comeback win against Wisconsin, and just days before hitting the road for Pasadena, California for the 103rd Rose Bowl Game.
"I obviously saw everything that was happening positively here at Penn State, the future we had coming, and guys coming back, the talent that we had," Gesicki said. "I knew from my personal experience that I had room to improve and things that I had to get better at. To come back to a football team with high expectations and kind of the sky's the limit for us, it made me see that there's no better option than to come back to Penn State and this great university and take full advantage of another year at school before moving forward."
The path to reaching even greater heights in 2017 began in winter workouts, where Gesicki, like others, noted the goal to strengthen not only physical, but mental toughness was at the forefront of setting the tone headed toward spring ball.
For Gesicki, spring ball this year means putting together the pieces from a wildly successful 2016 season.
Gesicki was as a shining example of one of those pieces.
The product of an intense commitment to offseason improvement, including a social media blackout, Gesicki silenced his critics from the start, with the first of a record-setting five touchdown catches by a tight end coming in the very first game of the season.
From an acrobatic one-handed grab against Temple to a timely second-quarter touchdown catch leaping in between a pair of Trojan defenders at the Rose Bowl, Gesicki quickly emerged as one of quarterback Trace McSorley's top targets.
Starting all 14 games, nearly every week featured an eye-popping Gesicki grab, as he climbed to the top of the Penn State record book with 48 receptions and 679 yards, both marks the most for a Nittany Lion tight end all-time and second on the team behind wide receiver Chris Godwin.
Exactly one year later. So much can change. Motivated more now than ever. Penn State Football may be back but still plenty left to build on.-- Ⓜ️G (@mikegesicki) January 4, 2017
"We don't have a team or a game plan to focus on so in a way, you can be selfish and not have to focus on things outside of the program and just focus on us," Gesicki said. "We kind of take these 15 practices to fix the problems and the minor setbacks that we had during the season and make everything click in the spring so when training camp hits and it gets going, we're working at full speed."
For Gesicki spring ball also means stepping into an even larger leadership role than before, as not only a senior, but a leader among his position group too.
"I've become a lot more comfortable in my role on the team so I've been able to step outside of my box, and know what my role is on a specific play or what I have to worry about on that specific play and then be able to go be a vocal leader, to help out guys with their assignment on the play," Gesicki said.
Understanding his role on each play goes much further for Gesicki though, who also pointed out that everyone on the team has approached spring practice with a greater awareness of their own role on the team.
"I think last year guys were trying to find their role, trying to understand a new system with a new offensive coordinator and a new defensive coordinator," Gesicki said. "Now we're a year forward and everybody knows their role and knows their assignment to play fast and play to the best of their ability. I think that's the most exciting thing because that's when the team is going to have the most success, when you know your role and you know your assignment and you're not second guessing yourself or the system and you're buying into what the coaches are preaching on a daily basis and you're playing at the highest level."
Combined with the initiative to make Penn State the most competitive atmosphere in college football, for Gesicki, the level of competition in each spring practice has only continued to rise.
"Every single period is like the national championship game, everybody is going so hard on every single play and showing how important it is for us to get better and to compete with our offense against our defense at such a high level, it's really paying dividends for us and it's really effective," Gesicki said.
With the 2017 on the horizon, Gesicki's decision he made more than three months ago is perhaps now more than ever, one he's excited to see through.
"To kind of sit here and look back from a year ago to where this team is now, we are light years ahead of where we were last year and I think that's going to only show in the season when we're a little more comfortable and there's more continuity and we're a year further in the system," Gesicki said. "I think there are a lot of things to be excited about at Penn State."
Reach Arielle at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @arielle_sargent