Mike Gesicki had to start from scratch to become the most freakish tight end in America
CHICAGO — With all eyes on him, Mike Gesicki knew it was time to kick it up a notch.
His quarterback, Trace McSorley, floated him a perfect pass. It was Gesicki’s job to soar above the bystander and make the play.
To the average college football player, it would’ve been tough to pull off. It took hand-eye coordination and a serious vertical leap to get the ball at its highest point. It wasn’t a play that a 6-6, 252-pound tight end was supposed to make.
But as he often did, Gesicki made it look easy. He caught McSorley’s pass…and dunked it with authority.
There was no debating who the Penn State football team’s dunk contest winner was. Clearly, Gesicki stole the show.
The NBA should put Penn State’s TE Mike Gesicki in the dunk contest next year pic.twitter.com/lAU2vCVkpm
— Tailgate Heisman (@TailgateHeisman) March 3, 2017
In reality, though, Gesicki had an unfair advantage. See, he had been dunking basketballs since eighth grade. That came naturally to him. Gesicki would’ve been disappointed in himself if he didn’t dominate the dunk contest.
After his winning dunk, Gesicki looked over at Penn State tight ends coach Ricky Rahne. He didn’t join Penn State players in celebrating Gesicki’s victory.
“Coach Rahne was standing in the background and he was like, ‘You’re done,’” Gesicki joked. “I was like, ‘There it is. I’m done. I’m done for the day.’”
Rahne had seen Gesicki work too hard to throw his senior season away on a dunk contest. To get to where he is today — an All-American candidate and the top-rated tight end in the 2018 draft class — Gesicki had to learn a new position on the fly.
And unlike dunking, playing tight end didn’t come easy.
Gesicki was a late bloomer at tight end, but that’s not to say he came to Penn State as an unheralded recruit. The Southern Regional High School (New Jersey) racked up 1,817 yards on 103 receptions and was the program’s all-time leading receiver. He was an all-state and Under Armour All-America selection. In the 247sports rankings, Gesicki was actually listed as the No. 1 tight end in the country.
There was just one problem. He wasn’t a tight end. He was a receiver.
But at 6-5, Gesicki had a 215-pound frame that could add muscle. Combine that with his ability to jump out of the gym — he was also a volleyball star and the basketball team’s all-time leading scorer at Southern Regional — and there was big-time upside for him as a tight end.
Gesicki was told in the recruiting process that receivers were a dime a dozen. If he could master the tight end position, he could have a long career in the NFL one day.
Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki
So after Gesicki enrolled at Penn State, he showed up for his first day of practice. All was going fine until a coach told him to go into a three-point stance.
“I kinda looked around and was like, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’” Gesicki said. “I was honestly starting from scratch in terms of being a tight end.”
The blocking was new. The route-running was new. The expectations were new. The sport that he made look so natural looked foreign.
It wasn’t just the missed blocking assignments that plagued the start of Gesicki’s career. A guy known for making miraculous catches dropped easy balls. Social media noticed Gesicki’s early struggles, too.
Words cannot describe how terrible Mike Gesicki is… Why even target him? He'll just drop it.
— Nate Shoemaker (@nateshoemaker1) November 7, 2015
@Ben_Jones88 BTW, they need to bench or cut Gesicki, b/c he is a drop MACHINE. He is terrible!
— nick para (@cvball4) November 7, 2015
There's your weekly Mike Gesicki awful drop. Just hope there's not another one.
— Andrew Porter (@And_Porter) October 18, 2015
After that rough stretch during his sophomore season, Gesicki shut down his Twitter account. It got to be too much. He broke his silence three months later:
Back to work,complete silence this offseason. Work hard and let your actions speak. #Delete
— Ⓜ️G (@mikegesicki) January 4, 2016
So Gesicki went an entire year without Twitter. He ended his Twitter hiatus exactly one year later on Jan. 4, 2017.
A lot happened between those 12 months.
The Lions’ tight end picture cleared up. Entering his junior season, Gesicki was suddenly the oldest tight end on the roster heading into 2016. Fellow blue-chip tight end recruit Adam Breneman retired from football because of injuries (he eventually transferred to UMass and is an All-America candidate). Kyle Carter graduated and Brent Wilkerson was kicked off the team.
The Lions had a new mobile, gunslinging quarterback in McSorley, who took over for the unpredictable Christian Hackenberg. Fordham coach Joe Moorhead joined Penn State as the team’s new offensive coordinator. He implemented a new up-tempo offense.
On top of that, Penn State also added Rahne to take over the tight ends.
“That’s the reason you saw our tight end production go up,” Gesicki said of Rahne.
Like, all the way up.
Penn State TE Mike Gesicki
In 2015, Gesicki had 13 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown. Oh, and he had five drops. In 2016, he had 48 catches for 679 yards — both of which were PSU records for a tight end — and five touchdowns. Oh, and he helped the Lions win a B1G Championship.
“I knew that there was an opportunity for me to achieve everything I wanted to,” Gesicki said. “It was just a matter of time before I put it all together. I knew what I was capable of.”
It wasn’t just the numbers that were impressive. It was the way in which Gesicki accumulated them that stood out. He replaced drops with highlight-reel catches in big-time moments. In each of Penn State’s final three games of 2016, he made at least one miraculous touchdown catch:
That wasn’t just the product of a new quarterback or a new tight ends coach. It wasn’t just a new social media approach, though that did open up Gesicki’s schedule to do the most important thing in order for him to improve.
Gesicki never lacked that mindset. He was always a guy who would stay after practice and work on the blocking sled by himself or he’d run routes.
That one-handed catch he made against Temple? That was the product of Gesicki’s practice routine of catching 20 balls with just his right hand and 20 with just his left.
Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki
There were times during the 2016 season when Gesicki would be wide-awake at 11 p.m. and he’d go find his roommate Saeed Blacknall or whoever he could to go run routes catch balls or do something to get better. Drops didn’t keep Gesicki up at night. Thinking someone was out-working him did.
“You only get this game one time,” Gesicki said. “I didn’t want to take it for granted.”
Gesicki will likely get to play this game well beyond his time in State College. He could’ve decided to leave for the NFL last year, especially after he finished the season so strong.
Instead, he made his mind up before the Rose Bowl that he was coming back. Even if he had a career day, he didn’t want one game to impact his decision. In addition to him wanting to take his two classes in the fall and graduate, he knew what the Lions had coming back. Getting a chance to compete for a national title made Gesicki’s decision even easier.
When it’s time for Gesicki to take part in the NFL combine, he’ll have a leg up on the competition. He’s been comparing himself to combine invitees since he was in high school. His numbers are already NFL-level.
There’s a reason he wound up at No. 13 on Bruce Feldman’s annual “Freaks List.”
He benches 415 pounds, he runs a 4.54-second 40-yard dash, he broad jumps 10’11, he has a 37 1/2-inch vertical and he power cleans 380 pounds. He had hopes of claiming the Penn State power clean mark. That is, until he saw Saquon Barkley put up 405 pounds.
“I’m like, ‘Well, second isn’t that bad, I guess,’” Gesicki joked.
But make no mistake, Gesicki is out for first in everything else.
He wants to be a key cog in the nation’s most explosive offense. Helping the Lions to their first national title of the 21st century wouldn’t be a bad way to go out, either. Expectations are far different than they were a short time ago, when Gesicki was the blue-chip recruit who couldn’t find his way.
Some might find it hard to believe that when he battled drops in his first two seasons, Gesicki never asked for a position switch. He saw the upside in sticking it out at tight end.
“I went head-first into doing whatever it took to be successful and reach my full potential,” he said. “Personally, I still don’t think I’ve reached my full potential. I think I have a long way to go, honestly. But I definitely did take a few steps forward. A lot of it is credited to my teammates, my coaches and just the time and dedication I put into this.”
With all eyes on him in 2017, Gesicki will look to kick it up another notch.
But just to be safe, he should probably avoid the dunk contests.