Penn State Football: Previewing Competitive Tight End Position Battle

Penn State Football
Penn State Nittany Lions Tight End Tyler Warren (44) makes a catch for a touchdown. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire)

Tight end is the first position in the position battle series so far (see running back and wide receiver) where Penn State Football is looking to replace the production of a player headed off to the 2024 NFL draft.

After four years in Happy Valley where Penn State fans saw Theo Johnson catch 77 passes for 938 yards and 12 touchdowns, Johnson declared for the 2024 NFL Draft and hopes to become the fourth straight Nittany Lions tight end to be selected in the top two rounds. Without Johnson in the fold for 2024, Penn State will have to replace one of its starting tight ends and a reliable pass catcher.

Even though only one tight end may “start” a game, Penn State Football has utilized two tight ends regularly and consider both starters so I will use that two starter language throughout this article. Here is the breakdown of the position.

Penn State Football TE Position Battle Breakdown

Known starter: Tyler Warren

Penn State has benefited in 2023 from having two stellar tight ends on the field, at times on the field at the same time.

In his fourth year on campus, the former high school quarterback racked up 34 catches for 422 yards and seven touchdowns in 2023, tying Theo Johnson for the team lead in receiving touchdowns. Warren and Johnson had been a fantastic duo for Penn State, and now Warren will continue with the Nittany Lions program with Johnson off to the NFL. Warren will again be expected to start at tight end for Penn State in 2024 as he closes in on the Penn State all-time receiving touchdown record for tight ends.

Ahead of the 2024 season, Warren has caught 11 touchdown passes at Penn State, five short of Pat Freiermuth’s record of 16 set in 2020. If Warren is able to match or increase his 2023 production next season, he will break the record before he heads off to the 2025 NFL draft.

Fighting for Second Starting Spot/Rotational Playing Time

Unlike the depth chart when Brenton Strange left for the NFL Draft where both Tyler Warren and Theo Johnson were relatively known commodities for Penn State, the most experienced tight end outside of Warren remaining on Penn State’s roster in 2024 has nine career catches (Khalil Dinkins) the only tight end other than Warren with a career catch. With plenty of talent in the room, there will be an intense battle for the second starting tight end spot and for playing time in general.

Most likely: Khalil Dinkins

Redshirt junior Khalil Dinkins is the only tight end other than Tyler Warren with a career catch for the Nittany Lions. He’s accumulated nine catches for 110 yards and three touchdowns in 20 career games with the Nittany Lions. Notably, Dinkins also replaced Theo Johnson in the second half of the Peach Bowl when Johnson left to manage usage ahead of the 2024 NFL draft. Dinkins has shown flashes of potential and could have a leg up with his (albeit limited) experience on the others in the position room.

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The rest:

Jerry Cross

Redshirt sophomore Jerry Cross has not seen the field often for Penn State in his two year career, appearing in five games as a redshirt freshman and not seeing the field at all during his true freshman season. Cross was a four star prospect in the 2022 class and the number 15 overall tight end in his class.

Joey Schlaffer

Redshirt freshman Joey Schlaffer, a three star in state prospect, did not see the field during his freshman season at Penn State. The Reading native however has received a shoutout from Penn State tight ends coach Ty Howle as the “competitor of the day” for three winter workouts this offseason. What that means for his positioning in the position battle remains to be seen as spring practice awaits and pads come on.

Andrew Rappleyea

Andrew Rappleyea was a massive recruiting win for Penn State out of Massachusetts as the Nittany Lions flipped the four-star prospect from Big Ten rival Michigan. The 6-foot-5 inch Rappleyea ranked as the number six tight end in the nation and number 127 overall player in the 2023 class. Rappleyea saw the field in three games as a true freshman but did not record a stat.

Luke Reynolds

Luke Reynolds is an intriguing name on this list, while being the youngest player (just weeks removed from high school as an early enrollee on campus), Reynolds had a meteoric rise in the rankings in the past year to earn himself heralded five-star status, rare for a tight end. Ranked as the top tight end prospect in the country by 247Sports, Reynolds has the opportunity to compete in the spring as an early enrollee and potentially earn himself major playing time as a true freshman.

Although Penn State’s tight ends have limited experience behind Tyler Warren, there is plenty of talent for Ty Howle to sort through in the room. Any of the four younger tight ends could push Kahlil Dinkins in the fight for the second starting spot so this will be an intriguing position to watch all spring. 

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