At this exact time a year ago, Penn State’s offense had what many perceived to be a big issue.
Mike Gesicki was gone, a few weeks away from being taken by the Miami Dolphins in the second round of the NFL Draft. Penn State’s years of dominant tight end play seemed to go with him. All that remained were players who could stand in his spot but hardly fill his shoes. A veteran named Jonathan Holland. A talented but oft-injured Nick Bowers. A pass catcher who struggled in the blocking game, Danny Dalton.
Few mentioned Pat Freiermuth in their company. But a year later, as the Nittany Lions wind down spring practices and prepare for Saturday’s Blue-White Game, Freiermuth’s presence is a big one in Happy Valley, where few are concerned about the present at the tight end spot.
Or the future. Penn State’s. Or his.
“It’s cool being compared to Gronk,” the 6-foot-5 New Englander said, showing just how much his status has risen from one spring practice to the next. “I’m not focused on that. ... I want to be my own person, play my own game. But, if I was going to be compared to someone, I’m not going to be mad if it’s Gronk.”
Some have called the Nittany Lions’ star sophomore the next Rob Gronkowski, and that would be plenty good enough for those who cheer Freiermuth on from his hometown in Merrimac, Massachusetts, firmly in the heart of Patriots country.
They can say they appreciated Freiermuth’s ability long before Penn State.
After his sophomore season as a high school quarterback, Freiermuth enrolled in the prestigious Brooks School, a private institution known more for producing politicians and big-time actors — Anthony Perkins, James Spader and Sam Waterston, to name a few — than football stars. Freiermuth is the only Brooks alum playing major college football, and if he does indeed go to the NFL like Gronk did, he’ll be the only one who has ever turned pro.
That’s where he got serious about the tight end position. He hated playing quarterback, he said. Threw 13 interceptions in 11 games, then gave it up. But one of his coaches at Brooks took a look at his ability to run routes, his soft hands and his sheer size and promised him big-time college offers were in the offing.
“And I didn’t believe him,” Freiermuth said. “UMass called and [Boston College] called, but they’re just local. Once Syracuse and Penn State and Ohio State and Notre Dame especially, because it was the first big-time school to reach out, did, it hadn’t been much. That year really opened my eyes to what could be.”
With no realistic hope to replace more than just a fraction of Gesicki’s prolific production last season, Penn State decided to find out quickly what Freiermuth could be. After some impressive showings on special teams and some early backup reps behind Holland and Bowers, head coach James Franklin and tight ends coach Tyler Bowen cast Freiermuth into the starting lineup against Ohio State on Sept. 29.
He caught a touchdown that day, and he’d go on to catch at least one in seven of Penn State’s last 10 games.
Penn State safety Garrett Taylor, who goes against Freiermuth daily in practice, said the secret of the tight end’s success is out there for everybody to see.
Technically, Taylor said, he can cover him perfectly, be in perfect position, running side by side with him, head turned, play diagnosed perfectly. But if the quarterback puts the ball in the right spot, there’s nothing he can do against a tight end with a 6-5, 262-pound frame who has speed to burn, gets in and out of his breaks quickly and never seems to drop a ball that touches his hands.
“He can help the offense even more than he did last year,” Taylor said.
Technically, Freiermuth wasn’t the top-rated tight end Penn State landed in the 2018 recruiting class; Rivals.com ranked him sixth in the nation, with Zack Kuntz rating fourth. But Freiermuth was so dominant as a true freshman, Penn State coaches have been able to use his performance as a demonstration of what is possible in the future for tight end prospects like Brenton Strange, a true freshman who landed at Penn State because he’d like to be the next Pat Freiermuth.
“It’s fun, all the tight ends coming in and all the coaches showing them clips of me,” Freiermuth said. “I’m just trying to continue the tradition of tight ends here. The whole tight end group is ready for a breakout year.”