Nittany Line: Penn State tight ends have some catching up to do

Andrew Szczerba: healthy
Andrew Szczerba: healthy (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: September 02, 2011

IF THERE WERE such a thing as a college football fantasy draft - uh, wait a second, there is - it's a safe bet no current Penn State tight end would be selected.

Penn State tight ends totaled only five receptions, 63 yards and a single touchdown in 2010. That was a pronounced dropoff from the previous season, when the position accounted for 53 catches, 631 yards and five TDs.

Two of the tight ends in 2009, Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler Jr., were seniors who were drafted by NFL teams. Quarless earned a Super Bowl ring with Green Bay as a rookie. Shuler, whose father was a 14-year NFL veteran with the New York Jets and Eagles after lettering 3 years (1975 to '77) with the Nittany Lions, is now with the Miami Dolphins after being drafted by the Minnesota Vikings.

Andrew Szczerba, who led Salesianum High to Delaware state championships in 2005 and '06, and was named Delaware player of the year as a senior while earning first-team all-state honors on both offense and defense, seldom got onto the field while behind Quarless and Shuler. He redshirted in 2007, caught one pass for 9 yards in 2008 and one for 6 yards in 2009, the only tight-end reception that year that wasn't hauled in by Quarless or Shuler.

But 2010 was to be the coming-out party for the patient 6-6, 266-pounder with the soft hands, the season in which he would fill the cavernous void left by the departure of Quarless and Shuler.

Didn't happen. Szczerba sat out the entire year with a chronic back condition. He wasn't even able to jog until midseason, by which point coach Joe Paterno had decided it might be better to make do with kids greener than the Boston Celtics' road uniforms.

Redshirt freshman Garry Gilliam began the season as the starter, but he torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the fifth game, against Iowa, and didn't play again. He is not expected to suit up this year while continuing to rehab the injury.

Gilliam was replaced by true freshman Kevin Haplea, who started three games. With depth an increasing concern, the coaching staff switched redshirt freshman Nate Cadogan, a reserve offensive lineman, to tight end during the mid-October bye week. Cadogan caught the only TD pass by a tight end, a 3-yarder from Matt McGloin that helped the Lions rally from a 21-0 deficit to a 35-21 victory over Northwestern, helping Paterno to his 400th career victory. Cadogan is now back at his natural position, as the second-team left tackle behind fifth-year senior Quinn Barham.

So where does that leave matters heading into tomorrow's season opener against Indiana State in Beaver Stadium? Pretty much where they were expected to be a year ago, when Szczerba was to be the guy holding everything together while his young backups watched and learned.

This time, however, Szczerba is healthy and he's ready to catch all those passes that never came his way in the past.

"I'm feeling good, finally," Szczerba said. "Last year was hard to deal with. I was behind two veteran tight ends for a couple of seasons, waiting my turn to show what I could do. Then, when it should have been my turn, I couldn't go, because I had an injury.

"It was a bummer, but what could I do?"

Not that Penn State usually includes the tight end as a focal point in its aerial attack, but Daryll Clark made liberal use of Quarless and Shuler during his two seasons as an All-Big Ten quarterback, something McGloin and Rob Bolden weren't able to do in 2010.

Paterno acknowledged that the position has changed with the increased emphasis on throwing the ball.

"Tight end isn't like it used to be," JoePa said of last season's carousel. "Those guys used to be [primarily] blockers, but now they're such an integral part of your passing game."

Szczerba believes he can elevate Penn State's tight-end position to something more than that of a sixth offensive lineman. His backups are mostly inexperienced, led by Haplea, with redshirt juniors Brian Irvin, a converted defensive end, and J.D. Mason behind him. Irvin and Mason never have caught a pass in game action.

"I can stretch the field in the passing game," Szczerba said when asked to assess what he brings to the table.

"I know I'm not owed anything, and you can't ever expect something to be just handed to you. I was able to suit up for spring ball, run routes, block. I worked hard and came into the preseason feeling I wasn't that far behind. My body felt fresh, because I didn't take a pounding last season."

His mental approach is refreshed, too.

"Having football taken away makes you realize how fortunate you are to be able to play, whenever it is," Szczerba said. "I tell the other players to enjoy it all because you never know when it's going to be the time when the game is taken away from them."

3 THINGS TO WATCH

 * Eight players had 100-yard rushing games against Penn State last year. If Indiana State's 5-8 Shakir Bell, who averaged 6.8 yards per carry in 2010, hits triple digits, red flags will go up.

* Let's see whether defensive ends Jack Crawford (foot) and Eric Latimore (wrist) are as recovered from their 2010 injuries as they claim to be.

* Punter Alex Butterworth and kicker Evan Lewis fill in, respectively, for Anthony Fera (suspended) and Collin Wagner (graduated). "I'm concerned about our kicking game until we kick a few," Joe Paterno said.

PREDICTION

 Penn State 52, Indiana State 7

AGENDA

Who: Indiana State at Penn State

When: Tomorrow, noon

Where: Beaver Stadium, State College

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: WNTP (990-AM), WPNV (1440-AM)

History: First meeting

Coaches: Trent Miles is 7-27 entering his fourth season at Indiana State, his alma mater; Joe Paterno, 401-135-3, 46th year

About Indiana State: Miles was named Missouri Valley Football Conference Coach of the Year after leading the Sycamores to a 6-5 record last season. It might not sound like much, but remember that this program endured 33 straight losses from 2006 to 2009, and hadn't had a winning season since 1996 . . . ISU scored a school-record 351 points a year ago, in large part because of QB Ronnie Fouch, who passed for 20 touchdowns, also a school record. Fouch, a 6-2, 215-pound senior, is a transfer from Washington who started eight games for the Huskies in 2008 after future NFL first-round draft choice Jake Locker was injured . . . Junior DE Ben Obaseki is the top defensive player, racking up nine sacks and 16 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in 2010 . . . The Sycamores are 0-8 all-time against Big Ten teams.

About Penn State: This is the 125th season of Penn State football . . . After registering just 16 sacks last season, down from 34 in 2009, Lions pass rushers have to be salivating for the opportunity to get after Fouch. In an intrasquad scrimmage in August conducted under game-type conditions, Fouch and backup QB Coy Glass were sacked 14 times and threw five interceptions . . . Sophomore Glenn Carson might not get the all-star notices of fellow LB Michael Mauti, but there's a reason he is starting at MLB, with Mauti shifting to the strong side. "He just went around making plays," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said of Carson's steady performance in the spring and in preseason drills. "He'd make every play he was supposed to make, and more" . . . The chief area of concern - again - is an offensive line that is short on depth and star-quality blockers.

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