Mike Gesicki’s physical routine before the 2016 season was well-documented. The Penn State tight end stayed after practice every day during the offseason to hit the blocking sled and catch passes.
But off the field, he did the same sort of repetition to help from a psychological standpoint.
“I had goals and aspirations,” Gesicki said. “Going into that spring ball, I would write in my notebook every day. First thing I’d write is, ‘I’m the best tight end,’ every single day. If anybody ever read that, they would have laughed at me at that point in my life. Just because they’re like, ‘You’re not even close to that.’
“But I knew what I was capable of. That’s something that I’m very proud of, to kind of hold with me, and grow and develop and become the player I am.”
As the senior prepares for his final game at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, it was a moment to reflect on how far he has come from his drop-plagued sophomore season. But it also was a time to acknowledge that he still has a ways to go if he hopes to become an NFL regular down the road.
One of eight semifinalists for the Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end, Gesicki leads the Nittany Lions in receptions with 42 in a season where six players have at least 14 grabs and five are over 20. His five touchdowns are second on the team, though they all came in just three of the Lions’ 10 games.
Along the way, he broke the all-time Penn State record for catches by a tight end.
His 6-foot-6 frame is what NFL scouts love to see — “catch radius” is the term they throw around — and his numbers, for the most part, have continued to climb from his breakthrough junior season.
“I owe a lot of credit to my coaches, my teammates and my family and friends for sticking with me and fighting out the other side,” Gesicki said. “And being able to look back at my Penn State career and being proud of everything I’m going through.”
Of course, Gesicki is well aware of the same criticism that has followed him throughout his career. Despite his size, he isn’t known as a strong blocker despite his efforts to improve there over his four years.
Lions coach James Franklin, who has been looking for more physicality from his offense in recent weeks, was quick to point out this week that Gesicki and the tight ends have to pull their weight in that area as much as the offensive line.
“It’s probably harder than it’s ever been at the tight end position, because most tight ends in high school were big wide receivers,” Franklin said. “And it’s about getting all those guys to embrace the physicality of the position and the importance of being complete players on the O-line and at tight end.”
That description pretty much pegs Gesicki on the nose as a player who was essentially a wide receiver throughout high school — too valuable a weapon to stay in and block — and, to a lesser extent, as a true freshman in college.
A former Penn State captain was less diplomatic in his evaluation.
“One thing you don’t want to ask Gesicki to do a lot of is block — not his strength,” said Matt Millen, who made the comment as the Big Ten Network’s color analyst for the Lions’ win over Rutgers last week. “He goes in there and he just kind of ‘pattycakes’ sometimes. Just kinda walks up, ‘Hello, how you doing, nice to see you.’
“You’d like to see a little bit more of a killer mentality, but it’s not there.”
Gesicki responded this week by acknowledging his shortcomings, though he didn’t put much stock into Millen’s words specifically.
“I think I’m going to have to continue to improve in my blocking abilities,” Gesicki said. “I think I’m more than willing to block. I think I’ve taken a bunch of steps forward in my blocking abilities. Something I honestly take pride in. So I’m going to own everything on film. Obviously there are plays every single game that I’d like back.
“But as far as a commentator ripping into me, it’s going to take a lot more than a commentator ripping into me to shut me down. I’ve received many other hurtful and disrespectful comments and all that kind of stuff. So honestly, the only critique that I’m worried about is coming from (tight ends coach Ricky) Rahne.”
For Franklin and the Lions, the difference comes in where Gesicki was as a blocker when he arrived as a star recruit in 2014, and where he is now.
“I think Mike has come a long ways, considering when he got here, he had never blocked anyone in his life,” Franklin said. “He made tremendous progress early on, and continues to chip away at that. He understands it.
“I would say when I watch Coach Rahne’s drills and we go over practice plans, I would say probably 80 to 90 percent of their drill work is not running routes and catching balls, it’s all the run game. So he understands very clearly what he needs to do. I don’t think there is any gray area there.”