Pat Freiermuth found himself in a familiar place Wednesday night: The end zone. As the Nittany Lions prepared for No. 5 Michigan, the true freshman tight end beat a member of the scout team off the line, laid out over the middle and snagged a 10-yard touchdown pass before the ball had a chance to bounce off the Holuba Hall turf.
After the noteworthy catch, James Franklin and tight ends coach Tyler Bowen pulled the first-year starter aside and gave him a few pointers. Freiermuth, just eight games into his college career, still has room to grow. But the early signs indicate a bright future.
Freiermuth couldn’t ask for a better run after beating out veterans Jon Holland, Nick Bowers and Danny Dalton for Penn State’s No. 1 job. The 6-foot-5, 258-pounder has four touchdowns, which ranks second among Big Ten tight ends behind Iowa star and 2019 draft prospect Noah Fant.
What’s more impressive? Those touchdowns have come in the Nittany Lions’ last five games, all Big Ten contests. Through Wednesday night, Freiermuth’s four scores are tied with three others (Fant, Arkansas’ Cheyenne O’Grady, Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr.) for the most touchdowns by a tight end in conference play this season.
When asked what this groove can do for Freiermuth beyond this season, when he’s a target for Tommy Stevens and possibly Sean Clifford in 2019 and 2020, Franklin balked at looking too far ahead. Instead, the coach leaned on something he’s said about the tight end since spring camp: The moment isn’t too big for him.
“I’ve told you from the beginning, he’s kind of handled himself like a vet,” Franklin said Wednesday. “Like any player, as you have success it builds confidence. It builds confidence into this weekend.”
And on Saturday, Penn State will need the kid who has proven to be a reliable red-zone target, who caught a one-handed touchdown against Ohio State.
Michigan boasts college football’s best pass defense, allowing only 122.9 yards per game through the air. The Wolverines have been especially good against tight ends. Don Brown’s unit has let up seven catches for 85 yards and one touchdown to tight ends all season.
Thankfully for the Nittany Lions, Freiermuth doesn’t need many opportunities to make an impact. He ranks just fourth on the team in receptions and has never had more than three catches in a game.
And yet, Freiermuth’s effectiveness in and around the red zone — his average length of touchdown is 12 yards — is valuable for a Penn State offense that’s experienced issues finishing off drives. Ricky Rahne’s offense can’t settle for field goals on the road as a double-digit underdog, and Freiermuth might hold the key to finding the end zone.
Heck, he’s done it four times since Sept. 29. Who’s to say Trace McSorley can’t find him in Ann Arbor?
“I’ve got a really good relationship with Pat,” the quarterback said. “His approach has helped him continue to have success as the year has gone on.”
Added Franklin: “(2018 has) been great for him. … It builds confidence into his future. No doubt about it.”