ORLANDO — Penn State has been blessed with some terrific tight ends in recent years in Mike Gesicki and Jesse James, but there were major question marks entering this season about who would be next in line.
Not only do those questions no longer exist, the answer is way better than anyone could have expected.
True freshman Pat Freiermuth has caught 24 passes this season, which may not be a ton, but he leads the Nittany Lions with seven touchdown grabs.
The 6-foot-5, 258-pounder from Massachusetts has been as sure-handed as they come, and not only that, he’s also proven to be a solid blocker.
In all phases, Freiermuth is well ahead of where Gesicki and James were at this stage of their college careers.
“Obviously, coming in, he was a very mature player, being a post-grad guy out of high school,” PSU tight ends coach Tyler Bowen said Friday at Citrus Bowl practice. “He’s done what we ask all of our guys, just get better every week. He continues to do that every week.
“We can ask him to do a little bit more, and he’s handled that well. Nothing’s been too big so far, and he’s continued to get better throughout the season.”
James, who’s now with the Steelers, caught 15 passes for 276 yards and five TDs as a PSU freshman in 2012. Gesicki, now with the Dolphins, caught only 11 passes for for 114 yards and no TDs as a freshman in 2014.
Freiermuth has more TD catches than those two guys combined during his freshman year, and just two fewer receptions than those two combined.
Freiermuth was rewarded for his efforts by being named a freshman All-American by ESPN, The Athletic and 247Sports.
“He’s playing at a really high level,” coach James Franklin said of the tight end toward the end of the regular season. “It’s not like he came in here and we had a hole on the roster and were forced to kind of play him. He’s earned it the hard way.”
Gesicki was a major weapon for the PSU offense the past two years, with 48 catches and five TDs in 2016 and then 57 catches and nine scores a year ago. He overcame early adversity in his career after dropping some balls to become an excellent receiver, but he never did develop into much of a blocker, something that still plagues him today in the NFL.
James also struggled as a blocker in college but has gotten better in the NFL, although that still would not be considered his strong suit.
With Freiermuth, he not only catches everything thrown his way, he also seems to fully understand and accept the importance of blocking as a tight end.
“One of the things that he did really well early on was just to be physical at tight end,” quarterback Trace McSorley said late in the season. “That was something that I know Bowen really wanted our tight ends to do.
“That was something that Pat bought into right away, and since then, that was kind of his identity. He was going to go and he was going to throw his face in there and he was going to hit you when he was blocking.”
McSorley praised Freiermuth at every turn as the season progressed, and he also developed great confidence throwing to the freshman. Freiermuth caught two TDs in the next-to-last game at Rutgers, then one more in the regular-season finale against Maryland.
“Coming in (this season), I was kind of nervous just to get the whole thing going, and Trace really helped me learn the playbook, be more confident throughout camp and until the season started,” Freiermuth told gopsusports.com after the Rutgers game.
“Once we got started and more reps and everything, Trace was always giving me some props and staying confident with me and giving me a look on all the reads. So he just came in and kind of gave me a whole new level of confidence and just making sure that I know that I can play to my full potential.”
Bowen was asked Friday how important Freiermuth and PSU’s other tight ends will be in Tuesday’s game against a solid Kentucky defense.
“Any time we’re playing a 3-4 team, there’s a little more on our plate,” Bowen said. “I always say that the tight end is a jack of all trades and we try to master all of them. We don’t try to master none.
“But we want to affect the game in the pass and run and on the perimeter blocking. I think it’s a huge game for us and a huge challenge.”