Gesicki looking to do more than just catch the ball

UNIVERSITY PARK — It’s easy to tell when a tight end is good at catching the ball, and after a tough 2015 season, Mike Gesicki rebounded with a stellar 2016 campaign by hauling in just about everything thrown near him.

Those pass-catching abilities make the 6-foot-6, 257-pound Gesicki a great weapon in Penn State’s offense. He’s a preseason All-American and highly touted NFL draft prospect who last season set school records for receptions (48) and yards (679) by a tight end, to go along with five touchdowns.

But there’s more to being a great tight end than just catching the ball, and part of Gesicki’s impressive growth during his career has come in some other areas.

“I think football IQ, for one,” Gesicki said of the biggest strides he’s made, “just understanding the game, understanding my role, understanding everybody’s role around me. Not just coming in here and being an athlete, being on the field and knowing my play, but understanding overall the game of football.

“Football IQ, playing with confidence, playing fast, I think all the little things are starting to come together now in order to be a complete player.”

Gesicki was one of the top tight end recruits in the country coming out of high school, catching 103 passes for 1,817 yards and 16 TDs at Southern Regional in New Jersey. In high school, however, he was a receiver rather than a true tight end, and he never put his hand on the ground in a three-point stance.

Gesicki didn’t actually have to do tight end duties, including a big one — block.

“No, unless I fell, my hand was never on the ground,” he said with a laugh.

When he first got to Penn State, Gesicki’s blocking skills were, ummm … well, let him explain:

“I don’t think there was any room to decrease in my blocking ability, so I think there was only one way to go was up,” he said, again with a laugh. “So from the moment I got here until now, I think I’ve only improved. I’ve been coached up pretty well, and I’ve also had some mentors and good guys in front of me to learn from.

“Overall, I have improved, but until I’m done playing, I’m always going to have room to improve in that aspect of it.”

The biggest thing Gesicki had to learn about playing tight end in college was the physical aspect. He went from not having to block in high school to having to block standout — and in some cases elite — defensive ends in college.

“Just adapting to the position from the moment I got here to now, understanding the physicality of it and understanding that 50 percent of the time you’re involved in the run game, 50 percent of the time you’re involved in the passing game,” he said of the challenges.

“Playing tight end, you have to be on your toes at all times just because you’re involved in so many different aspects of the game.”

That’s especially true in Joe Moorhead’s offense.

A tight end gets rewarded quite a bit with the ball getting thrown his way, and that truly is where Gesicki excels. But there are so many other plays where he has important responsibilities that are crucial to help open things up for Saquon Barkley in the running game or Trace McSorley in the passing game.

“Being a tight end in this offense, you get involved in the run game, and the more you get involved in the run game, it opens up more in the pass game,” Gesicki said. “We’re always in there, sticking our head in there blocking, playing physical and doing what we have to do in the run game, because that ultimately is going to set us up in the pass game.

“This offense is very diverse for a tight end because you’re doing so many different things. Overall, it’s extremely effective and successful. … Coach Moorhead is a genius when it comes to football, Xs and Os and all that kind of stuff. He always puts the team in the perfect situation to run a specific play, he’s always back there dicing it up.”

Gesicki is such a good athlete that he can give defenses fits on short, intermediate and long routes. And in Moorhead’s offense, the tight end has opportunities to make catches all over the field.

With last year’s receptions leader Chris Godwin gone to the NFL, there’s a chance Gesicki could lead the Nittany Lions in catches this season.

As coach James Franklin pointed out at Big Ten media days in Chicago, defenses have a tough time with a good blocker who also can run all sorts of routs and catch the ball.

“When you’ve got Mike Gesicki, who is 6-6, 250 pounds and can get up the field and make plays in the passing game, it’s kind of like you’ll pick your poison,” Franklin said.

Last season, Gesicki’s longest reception was 53 yards, and he averaged 14.1 yards per catch.

“I enjoy it a bunch. It’s awesome,” Gesicki said of his role in the passing game. “Sometimes I get to catch a ball for 50 yards, sometimes I get to catch it behind the line of scrimmage and see what I can do with it. It’s so diverse, and there’s so many different options in this offense, and to be able to be one of the pieces that Coach Moorhead moves around and is able to help get in space and make plays, it’s awesome.”

Gesicki is a fun young man who’s almost always smiling and seems to enjoy everything that comes with being a college football player. He was asked on media day which player on the team might be the best player in another sport, and his response was humorous.

“Am I allowed to answer myself?” he said. “I mean, I’m going to go, honestly, probably volleyball. That was kind of my thing.”

At that point, some of the other tight ends on the squad who were listening to his answer started chuckling behind him. And Gesicki didn’t let that go.

“My guys are now laughing at me,” he said with a smile before turning around and joking with them, “You got something to say?”

A year ago at this time, everyone was wondering if Gesicki would be able to regroup after a 2015 season that saw him drop a number of key passes when he was wide open. Could he cut it? Could he live up to his potential?

Then Gesicki went out and had a terrific 2016 season, giving him the last laugh with his critics. If he has another big year, as expected, he probably will be projected to go as high as the second round in next year’s NFL draft.

Now that everyone is talking him up so much and predicting huge things, Gesicki said his mindset hasn’t changed with regards to outside expectations and questions.

“When things were going poorly, you don’t read anything, you don’t look at it,” he said. “And now that things are going good, you don’t read it, you don’t look at it.

“A good quote that Coach Franklin put on the board one day is not to get caught up in praise or criticism because it’s a weakness to get caught up in either one. If you get caught up in people talking good about you, then you’ll get complacent. If you get caught up in people talking poorly about you, then it can get to your head and have a more negative effect on you. So just don’t pay attention to it.”