A look at Gesicki's record-breaking season (and how it happened)

UNIVERSITY PARK — It’s not that Mike Gesicki isn't aware of what’s happening around him, it’s that he doesn’t care. Or more specifically, he doesn't let it stop him.

Here’s the scenario that unfolded late in Penn State’s win over Michigan State last November, the victory that clinched the Big Ten East Division:

Gesicki, a New Jersey native and senior tight end for the Penn State football team, slipped behind the Spartan secondary, tracking toward the Beaver Stadium south end zone.

A safety tried to catch Gesicki after falling behind, but he was too late. Another defender tried to come over in the secondary, but he didn’t do any better. Gesicki leapt in the air and snatched the ball away from both of them, falling into the end zone for a touchdown that ignited the hometown crowd.

So, did Gesicki know two defenders were closing in? Maybe the better question is, does it matter?

“You see guys around you, but I’m not focused on that; I’m literally, ‘eyes on the ball,’” he said. “There could be 11 guys around me, and the only thing I’m focused on is the ball. That’s really it.”

The touchdown was one of many highlights for Gesicki during a junior campaign in which he broke a few program records. Most star players have highlights, but Gesicki’s felt and looked big.

That’s because they were.

Gesicki’s display of athleticism was also the result of chemistry that’s grown between him and quarterback Trace McSorley. The junior gunslinger knows Gesicki doesn’t have to be completely wide open to make those catches, and Gesicki has said as much to McSorley.

McSorley said that now he and Gesicki visualize routes, and McSorley can place the ball a little behind or a little high, taking advantage of Gesicki’s 6-foot-6, 257-pound frame.

“Mike’s a special athlete,” McSorley said. “At his size and athleticism, it’s really tough. You think to put a linebacker on him and it’s going to be really tough for a linebacker to stick with him in single coverage. And then safeties are going to be outmatched and outsized. I think understanding the matchup problem that Mike (presents) is something that we’ve been able to grow on in the last year.”

Gesicki pointed to his touchdown in the Rose Bowl as an example. It mirrored a play they ran against Ohio State, but against the Buckeyes, the ball was wet and went high on McSorley, Gesicki said. But they kept that play in mind, and even though Gesicki was blanketed in the Rose Bowl, he came down with the catch.

That usually happens.

As early as preseason camp, Gesicki started to believe that his junior year could be memorable. That thought quickly proved true in Week 3, when he snared a one-handed grab against Temple. The 52-yard catch led to a field goal and helped to create separation from the Owls (who Penn State beat 34-27), though more importantly, it in some ways vindicated, Gesicki said, all his offseason work.

“After practices, you see yourself make these plays, and you watch it on film, and you know what you’re capable of, and you put in all this time,” Gesicki said. “I think it’s only a matter of time before it all comes together, and I think that’s what I saw last year.”

Gesicki set single-season program records last season for tight ends, with 48 catches and 679 yards. He also tied the program mark at his position with five touchdowns.

In the offseason, Gesicki thought about forgoing his senior season for the NFL Draft. He never came close to leaving, he said, just more that he was considering his options. After a season like he had, that makes sense.

The breakout season also aligned with offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead coming to Penn State. Once he arrived, he met with Gesicki and showed him stats that previous tight ends had while playing in his system. He also arrived when Gesicki was “at the lowest of the lows,” the tight end said, though Gesicki said the coach gave him “a bunch of confidence and had a whole lot of belief and trust in me.”

That led to record-breaking numbers, and also why this summer, Gesicki said this: “Coach Moorhead is the man.”

Penn State will begin the year ranked No. 6 in the Coaches Poll, with nearly everyone returning. That factored into Gesicki’s decision to return for his senior season, and also for his outlook.

It’s a new season, and one in which almost anything seems possible.

“It was too hard to leave a team with this much potential and success in the future,” Gesicki said. “If I would’ve left, I would’ve felt like I was missing out on something. There’s just too much opportunity to grow for this team, and I wanted to be a part of it.

“I think we have an opportunity to do some really special things this season, and if I’ve got one year left, I’m going to maximize every single day.”

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