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March 27, 2012
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State tight end Garry Gilliam is a regular in the front row of the Nittany Lion basketball games inside the Bryce Jordan Center.
Gilliam is always smiling and glad to be supporting his fellow student-athletes, but on Jan. 15 his smile was a little bigger than usual.
The redshirt junior had just watched New England Patriots tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski combine for 14 receptions for 200 yards and four touchdowns, not to mention Hernandez rushing five times for 61 yards, in the Bill O'Brien-led offense during a 45-10 rout of the Broncos in the NFL Divisional Playoffs.
The tight end position(s) play a central role in what Coach O'Brien wants to do on offense. Gronkowski (90 receptions) and Hernandez (79 receptions) finished fifth and 15th, respectively, in the NFL's final regular season receiving statistics last season. Those stats and the reps during Monday's first spring practice are living proof that the tight ends will be heavily involved for the Nittany Lions.
"That's a very important part of what we're going to do offensively," Coach O'Brien said. "Obviously, the last two years in New England taught me a lot about the use of a tight end, multiple tight ends. What people don't understand in New England, a lot of times we used three tight ends. In 2010, we had Aaron (Hernandez), Rob (Gronkowski) and Alge Crumpler. The more you have, the more difficult it is on a defense."
Comparing the Patriots to the Nittany Lions is difficult to do, but the same principles will be in place as Coach O'Brien directs the Penn State offensive unit moving forward.
"These guys have had good winters. They put a lot of time in, and they're going to be a big part of what we do," Coach O'Brien said. "We're going to have two tight ends in there and at the very least one tight end in there the majority of the time."
Coach O'Brien talked through some X's and O's Monday about the differences between the tight end positions in his offense.
"At the tight end position you have basically what we call a Y, which a Y is a bigger guy, a good in line blocker, runs intermediate routes, short to intermediate routes," Coach O'Brien said. "His number one job is to block, and then his second job is to run short intermediate routes and be open. He's got to have good hands; he's got to be smart. He'll be involved in protections. He'll be involved in a lot of different things in the offense. Then we have the position that we call the F position, and the F position is more of what we call a move guy, a little bit better pass receiver than he is a blocker, has good hands, is smart."
So far, the new leader of Nittany Lion football has been very pleased with what he has seen from the tight ends on the roster.
"We've got a good number of guys there, seven or eight guys there so we are happy about that position," Coach O'Brien said. "They have three jobs, block well, block very well, and get open and catch the ball."
Learning new offensive schemes during spring practice will be challenging for the Nittany Lions, especially the tight ends.
"Next to quarterback it is probably the most difficult position to play because we ask them to do a lot of different things," Coach O'Brien said.
The learning curve will be steep, but the Nittany Lion tight ends are poised for a big season in 2012.