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Penn State Football: Jonathan Holland Starting to Catch On at Tight End

by on April 27, 2017 10:20 PM

Jonathan Holland is starting to catch on to this Penn State football thing.

Make that eight catches, actually.

As in a scrimmage-high eight receptions in last Saturday's Blue-White Game.

Three went for first downs, five were thrown by Trace McSorley and three by Tommy Stevens, and Holland had grabs of 11, 16 and 20 yards. Impressive.

With the tight end position decimated by injuries, and incumbent superstar Mike Gesicki a healthy scratch, Holland used the scrimmage to make a statement:

Yes, I can.

To be honest, he wasn't so sure his first two seasons at Penn State. "I feel that this year I really have my head on straight," said Holland, who had been on a crooked path his first three semesters at PSU.

"The first couple years I may not have handled it the right way," added the tight end, who will be a junior academically and a sophomore eligibility-wise in the fall. "Little things, like if there was a meeting and I forgot my notebook. It may not be a big deal to me or the other guys, but it means a lot in the coaches' eyes.

"If you stay on the straight and narrow it makes it a lot easier for things to happen. Gaining the coaches' trust and being someone they can rely on is great for any player, honestly. If they can't trust you off the field, they can't trust you on the field."

Holland came into Penn State in 2015 as a first-team all-Maryland high school selection and an ESPN four-star. He was a Top 5 prospect in Maryland and a Top 20 tight end across the country. And in his first season as a Nittany Lion, as a redshirt, he saw zero plays.

"It was definitely very hard for me," he said after the Blue-White Game. "Everyone kind of deals with it when they get here from high school, where they were the man before they came onto campus. It's a lot to take in."

The 2016 season wasn't a lot better. According to Andrew Callahan of Lions247, while Gesicki played more than 700 snaps in 2016 -- right around 90% of all of Penn State's offensive plays from scrimmage -- Holland got in for only 4% of Penn State's offensive snaps. (The No. 1 backup tight end, Tom Pancoast, was in for about 9%.)

NOT A GOOD RECEPTION

Penn State receivers made 226 catches last season, but none of them were by Holland (nor Pancoast nor any other tight end than Gesicki, for that matter). In 2016, Gesicki led all Big Ten tight ends with 48 receptions for 678 yards, and five TDs.

After Gesicki, though, there was a big drop-off. In fact, it's been 63 quarters of Nittany Lion football since a tight end not named Mike caught a pass. (The most recent: Brent Wilkerson grabbed a nine-yard pass from Christian Hackenberg in the second quarter of a bad 55-16 loss at Michigan State on Nov. 28, 2015.)

Last April, Wilkerson was kicked off the team. Then last August, promising redshirt Nick Bowers was injured in summer drills, forcing him to miss the entire 2016 season. That left Pancoast and Holland. They were not like Mike.

Holland's impact on Penn State's run for the roses last year was minimal. When the Nittany Lions returned from Pasadena, Holland decided — finally — it was time for some heart-to-Holland talks. Back home in Brandywine, Md., he sat down with his folks, Robert and LaShawne. And once he returned to the University Park campus, he had separate meetings with head coach James Franklin and tight end coach Ricky Rahne. "Long discussions," Holland called them.

"They sat me down and told me that this year has the potential to be a big year for me, along with a lot of other guys in the program," he said. "Having those tough conversations were not the easiest things to do, but it really helped me off the field and on the field. So I really decided to buckle down, get my priorities on track and stick to the daily grind of football, school and classes, my family and my religion."

SPRING FORWARD

As luck would have it, injuries continued to hit the tight end unit in the spring, to the point where Penn State added walk-on Joe Arcangelo -- who started at TE for the White squad -- in the spring to flush out drills. Both Pancoast and redshirt sophomore Danny Dalton, as well as Bowers, did not play in the Blue-White Game.

That made the success of the 6-foot, 4-inch Holland stand out even more. Franklin noticed.

"Jonathan Holland had a strong spring for us," the head coach said after the spring game. "You know, he weighs 250 pounds; he can catch, he can block. He’s really matured in so many different ways on and off the field. I’m really pleased with him."

After his eight-catch performance, Holland's hopes spring eternal.

"This year I matured a lot and embraced the role I had with the team," he said. "I'm ready to go whenever and wherever they need, and I can give them consistency. I was really just focused on having a great spring ball. The next step is having a great summer and getting in a lot of work in with the tight ends so we all can be ready for next season."

THERE’S A CATCH

When Penn State takes to the Beaver Stadium field in its home opener against Akron on Sept. 2, it will be 644 days since a Penn State tight end other Gesicki has caught a pass in a real (i.e., not Blue-White) game.

Holland said he is ready to change that.

"I feel like I might be a late bloomer," Holland said. "It's better late than never. I'm just happy that I have coaches who have stuck behind me."



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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