Gesicki a key cog for Nittany Lions’ offense

STATE COLLEGE — Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki gets a quick pep talk from a teammate or two before every game.

“Be Mike,” they say.

It’s taken him some time to figure out exactly what that meant, but he’s on the right track. Gesicki’s found his way in Penn State’s emerging offense with 14 catches over the past three games and has become Trace McSorley’s most reliable receiver.

He’s a different Mike that the one who played the last two years. That one was enamored with thoughts of stardom and his overconfidence never let nerves seep in before games. That Mike led the team in drops and played less and less as the year wore on.

“I wanted people to know who I was,” Gesicki said. “I wanted to go out there and make big plays. I wanted to be the guy. When that kind of stuff didn’t happen for me, I wasn’t doing the things that I wanted to do, I just changed my whole mindset. I don’t care if I walk down the street and nobody knows me. As long as Penn State wins, that’s all I care about.”

With his fresh outlook, the 6-foot-6, 252-pound Gesicki appears primed to play a big role against No. 2 Ohio State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.

Wisconsin used tight end Troy Fumagalli to move the ball against the Buckeyes last week. Fumagalli caught 7 of 9 targets for 84 yards with three third-down conversions. Like Fumagalli who’s also 6-foot-6, Gesicki creates mismatches against most players in coverage.

“He can go up and get the ball,” Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith said. “And when you cover a guy like that, you’ve got to respect his speed and try to get hands on him.”

Gesicki has learned to take advantage of them in coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offense. The former Fordham head coach always had big plans for Gesicki and he’d developed tight ends in the past. Three of them combined for 203 catches for 2,025 yards and 16 touchdowns in Moorhead’s last four years at Fordham.

With Gesicki running routes deep and across the field where he’s done most of his damage, Penn State’s passing game has developed as McSorley’s kept plays alive with his feet. McSorley’s completed 17 passes of 25 or more yards and his willingness to throw deep has provided Gesicki with more running room after catches with safeties are backed up, Gesicki said.

It’s much different from the last two years when he struggled to pick up blocking assignments and dropped balls when they came his way. It was on the plane ride home from the team’s bowl game that Gesicki mulled over his first two seasons — humbling 11- and 13-catch campaigns.

Eric Fierro, who coached Gesicki in football and basketball at New Jersey’s Southern Regional High School, points to a YouTube video of basketball highlights where Gesicki is draining 3s, sawing through the paint for finishes, slamming home alley-oops and blocking opponents seemingly at will to illustrate how used to dominating he was.

“A lot came for Michael really quickly in a lot of sports in high school,” Fierro told the AP. “A lot of attention from a lot of colleges came really quickly and as you can imagine for a 15-year-old kid whose dream is coming to fruition right before him, he had some growing pains going through high school and going to Penn State.”

A standout in the weight room, Gesicki spent most of the latter months last season staying after practice to pop the tackling sled or catch extra passes. He’s still doing that this season and feeling something different as a result.

“Before the first game this season, I was so nervous,” Gesicki said. “I was sitting at my locker just thinking about everything. I was talking to (teammate) Saeed (Blacknall) about it and he was like, ‘It’s because you put in so much work. Nothing has ever been this important to you.'”

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