Saquon Barkley roamed the sideline, slapping hands with old teammates, hugging coaches, waving to fans. His work at Beaver Stadium is done, and he did it well. A few feet away, a talented junior named Miles Sanders stretched his hamstrings, getting ready to lead the charge to replace Barkley’s production. Many believe Penn State’s running backs have a reasonable chance to do so.
Same goes for most of the Nittany Lions’ other players who left the program on the highest of highs after the 2017 season. It’s reasonable to believe that Penn State has the young receivers in the fold to adequately replace DaeSean Hamilton. They love sophomore guard Michal Menet so much, some might argue he can even be an improvement over the steady Brendan Mahon on the offensive line. And Harrisburg product Micah Parsons is the type of freakish athlete who might not start out as steady as the venerable Jason Cabinda at linebacker, but could wind up being more dynamic.
All that said, Penn State enjoyed having Mike Gesicki on the team the last few seasons, too. And the debates about how they ultimately replace his production have been muted for a while now.
The Blue-White Game didn’t exactly provide a good reason why.
For sure, there are more questions than answers at the tight end spot for the Nittany Lions even after the Blue team’s 21-10 win over the White in Saturday’s spring-capping scrimmage in front of 71,000 fans.
The most productive tight end on the field from a receiving perspective Saturday is certainly familiar to football fans in the Scranton area: Abington Heights grad Joe Arcangelo, who had two catches for 7 yards, capped by a 3-yard touchdown catch from young quarterback Jake Zembiec in the fourth quarter. But he’s a walk-on who has been in the program a little more than a year. Outside of Lackawanna County, he’s a relative unknown.
Of course, there was also redshirt freshman Danny Dalton, who had a 5-yard reception early.
Outside of that, though, the tight ends didn’t work their way into the boxscore, for a simple reason.
They were the only two that even played.
“Obviously,” offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne said, “we had a little less depth there this spring.”
It led to some interesting questions after the game from those reporters who realized, “Hey, how exactly are they going to piece together this position?” Gesicki, after all, came up with some big catches for Penn State, in the biggest games it played over the last two years. The Big Ten Championship Game. The Rose Bowl. The Fiesta Bowl. He was a freakish player, and right now, Penn State has solid players behind him.
Projected starter Jonathan Holland sat out with an injury. Sophomore Nick Bowers has battled injuries seemingly since he joined the program.
True freshman Zack Kuntz dressed but didn’t play, just months removed from enrolling early out of Camp Hill, and fellow true freshman Pat Freiermuth isn’t on campus.
Penn State is going to have to replace Gesicki’s production with that group, which might make replacing Gesicki an even more dicey proposition than replacing Barkley, an all-time program legend.
“We’ve got a ton of talent and a ton of guys who can be that guy in that spot,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “Dalton had a really good spring. Kuntz came in and did some good things. Arcangelo did good things, as well. We do still have Jon Holland and Nick Bowers, too. Those guys are going to be integral parts of our offense.”
Quarterbacks and captains have to say that, but in fairness, this is largely an untested group. Holland has played some, but not much, behind Gesicki. Dalton has been in the program two years and not played at all. The best all-around player in the group is probably Bowers, but again, availability sometimes trumps talent.
Arcangelo has been a solid receiver for the band of scout teamers that have played for the White teams the last two years. He led that team in total yards in the 2017 game, and he became the first player to score a touchdown for that team since 2015 on Saturday. He has emerged as an interesting option after joining the team out of a walk-on tryout, because he has been fairly consistent.
“He’s got some strength,” Rahne said of Arcangelo. “He’s got some pretty good hands. He just has to keep focusing on what his assignment is all the time. But, he has done a pretty nice job competing, which I think is one of his strengths, as well.”
Penn State has plenty riding on Kuntz and Freiermuth to be the cornerstones of the position down the road, and Rahne said Dalton — whose blocking deficiencies kept him off the field early on in his career — has become better at the point of attack and become a more consistent chain-mover in the passing game. Frankly, he seemed to understand the questions about the position as a whole, as well. Gesicki didn’t promise to be an easy man to replace, and there isn’t much hope that he can be in the short term.
But Rahne insisted that Penn State isn’t making contingency plans with the offense just yet, isn’t looking at ways to get an extra receiver on the field, or perhaps using Tommy Stevens this fall in some of the packages where the offense featured Gesicki in the past.
“I like our tight ends. I really do,” he said. “We’ve got some guys who are going to surprise some people. ... This offense runs best when we have a great tight end out there.”
As it turns out, Ricky Rahne’s first big job as offensive coordinator might not be to find a replacement for arguably the best running back it ever had. It’s to find that star among the players Gesicki left behind.