James Franklin Sets a High Bar for Penn State's Tight Ends

Franklin says Penn State has the best collection of tight ends he has ever coached.
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Penn State has produced some exceptional tight ends over the past decade. In fact, coach James Franklin has had three tight ends drafted during his tenure in State College.

Which makes his statement Wednesday noteworthy.

"I think our tight end room, you could make the argument that it's one of the best groups we've got from top to bottom," Franklin said. "I think it's arguably one of the best tight-end groups in the country. It's the best I've been around in 25 years of football."

The Lions, who open the season Sept. 4 at Wisconsin, certainly are stacked with young talent at the position. Brenton Strange (6-3, 256 pounds) returns after starting five games last year, when he made 17 receptions and averaged 9.6 yards per catch.

Theo Johnson (6-6, 250) made one start as a true freshman, catching four passes for 56 yards. And Tyler Warren (6-6, 249) looks to join the rotation after playing in two games as a true freshman.

Athletically, the trio is impressive. Strange recorded the top strength-index total (658) and best bench press (380 pounds) among tight ends during winter workouts. Johnson posted the top pro agility time (4.17 seconds), highest vertical jump (33-5) and longest jumps (10-4 in the broad and 31-1 in the triple broad). Warren led the group in the power clean (335) and squat (545).

Collectively, they form a unit that first-year position coach Ty Howle said will stand out in this offense. Howle said that coordinator Mike Yurcich runs a "tight-end friendly offense," one in which his tight ends have been making plays throughout camp.

This group of tight ends ultimately should enhance the run game, generate difficult matchups downfield and work often in two-player sets. It's an intriguing group, one that seeks to expand on the legacies of Jesse James, Mike Gesicki and Pat Freiermuth.

"In other years, we’ve had some guys who were really good receiving or really good blocking," Franklin said. "But I think this group is pretty well-rounded, all three of them."

Quick snaps

Franklin said the team has resolved a few position battles during training camp, notably the starting safety spot alongside Jaquan Brisker and No. 2 quarterback. Franklin did not identify those players, but senior Ji'Ayir Brown has been a top candidate to join Brisker, a fellow Lackawanna College product, in the starting lineup.

Franklin said the decision at quarterback was "obvious." Ta'Quan Roberson, a redshirt sophomore, is the only quarterback on the roster who has thrown a college pass besides starter Sean Clifford. Freshman Christian Veilleux is competing as well.

Meanwhile, left guard remains up for grabs. Juice Scruggs is a primary candidate to win the starting job, though expect to see several players there early in the season.

Speaking of early, Penn State will return to Beaver Stadium for a scrimmage Saturday morning. Franklin said the scrimmage will begin at 11 a.m. to mirror the local start time for the Wisconsin game, which is Penn State's most unique opener since it faced Central Florida in Ireland in 2014.

Outside of last year's Big Ten-only schedule, Penn State has not begun a season with a road Big Ten game since visiting Minnesota in 1994. No player on Penn State's roster has played at Camp Randall Stadium, and many haven't even been part of a true road game with fans.

The last time Penn State played a road game with any appreciable noise was Nov. 23, 2019, at Ohio State. Franklin is making his first trip to Wisconsin as well.

Freshmen to watch? Franklin continues to rave about the King brothers, Kalen and Kobe, who will make an impact on defense and special teams. He also mentioned safety Jaylen Reed and receivers Harrison Wallace and Liam Clifford.

Receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield said last week that Wallace and Clifford have been notable.

"They're getting a ton of reps," Stubblefield said. "[Wallace] is a player who's extremely athletic. You can tell by his highlight film and what he did on the basketball court [in high school]. It's really about trying to fine-tune his development as a wide receiver.

"Liam is a very focused young man who works his tail off. Both of them are having really good camps. They're getting a lot of snaps and improving every day."

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