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Penn State Football: In Billy Ball, Tight Ends Are All About Y’s and F’s

on April 04, 2012 6:13 AM

Penn State’s tight ends will be speaking a whole new language this fall.

That’s because when it comes to Billy Ball, X’s and O’s equate to Y’s and F’s. 

"At the tight end position, you have basically what we call a `Y,’ “ Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien said recently. “A `Y’ is a bigger guy — a good in-line blocker, runs intermediate routes, short to intermediate routes.

"His No. 1 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.

Under O’Brien’s offensive system, which has its roots in his five years with the New England Patriots, a tight end can also be an `F.'

O’Brien explains: “The ‘F’ position is more of what we call a move guy. He’s little bit better pass receiver than he is a blocker, has good hands, is smart."

There’s no doubt that tight ends will play a pivotal role in O’Brien’s pro-style offense after being virtually invisible the past two seasons.

Penn State fans will have as good a chance of seeing a tight end lined up in the backfield this fall as they do a traditional fullback. That’s not such a bad thing.

"That's a very important part of what we're going to do offensively," O’Brien said.

The return of the tight end to the offense also figures to be a big boost for the Nittany Lions’ razor-thin running back quandry.

With O’Brien serving as the Pats’ offensive coordinator this past season, tight ends Rob Gronkowski, a Pro Bowl performer, and Aaron Hernandez combined for 169 receptions, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns en route to reaching the Super Bowl.

The duo proved to be dangerous weapons and major mismatches for opposing NFL defenses. And they’re not much older than the Y’s and F’s with whom O’Brien is now working — both are just 22 years old.

"Obviously, the last two years in New England taught me a lot about the use of a tight end, multiple tight ends,” O’Brien said. “What people don't understand [is] in New England, a lot of times we used three tight ends.

“In 2010, we had Aaron, Rob and Alge Crumpler. The more you have, the more difficult it is on a defense."

Penn State’s tight ends haven’t done much more than block since 2009, when Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler combined for 52 receptions, 723 yards and five touchdown catches before departing for the NFL.

The returning crop of tight ends has combined for just eight receptions, and junior Kevin Haplea has six of those for 60 yards and a touchdown. A second TD pass was pulled in by redshirt junior Nate Cadogan, a one-time tight end who has since moved back to offensive tackle.

Garry Gilliam, a redshirt junior tight end recruited as a defensive end, has just one career catch for 21 yards. He has missed the past 22 games while recovering from an ACL injury to his left knee.

Dakota Royer, a redshirt sophomore, arrived in Happy Valley as a linebacker. Freshman Jesse James, a big target at 6-foot-7 as well as an early January enrollee, was snagging passes for South Allegheny High School this past fall. And senior Brian Irvin is a walk-on.

“I've been very impressed with Garry,” said O’Brien, noting other tight ends who should get a lot of playing time. “Jesse James, who really should still be in high school; and Kevin Haplea … Brian Irvin. 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.

“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.”

Other lesser-known tight ends practicing with the Nittany Lions this spring include redshirt freshmen Kyle Carter and Bryce Wilson and redshirt junior Matt Lehman.

Whether they’ll be another Gronkowski or Hernandez is unlikely. But given the production O’Brien got out of the position in his role with the Patriots, look for much heftier numbers out of the Penn State tight ends.

“We've got a good number of guys there, seven or eight guys there so we are happy about that position," O'Brien said. "They have three jobs — block well, block very well, and get open and catch the ball. Next to quarterback, it is probably the most difficult position to play because we ask them to do a lot of different things.”

And, if O’Brien has his way under Penn State’s new offense, those players will be letter perfect — at least when it comes to the Y’s and F’s.

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