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Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth is adjusting as defenses try to limit his red zone impact

The sophomore tight end hasn't been a favorite target of first-year quarterback Sean Clifford, but he's been tough to stop near the goal line.

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth fights off Buffalo defenders for a touchdown in the third quarter on sept. 7, 2019.
Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth fights off Buffalo defenders for a touchdown in the third quarter on sept. 7, 2019.Read moreAbby Drey / MCT

As Pat Freiermuth continued to grow and have a bigger impact in Penn State’s offense as a freshman last season, he noticed defenses focusing more on him.

But it wasn’t until the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky that Freiermuth felt an opposing defense trying to take him out of the action altogether.

“I remember we were in the red zone and pretty sure [defensive end] Josh Allen, he looked over at me and was like, 'You’re not scoring a touchdown on this one. We know what you’re about in the red zone,’ ” Freiermuth recalled earlier this season. “I was like, ‘Well, OK.’ ”

Freiermuth wound up scoring his eighth touchdown of the season, best for Big Ten tight ends, in that loss to Kentucky, and it was a sign of what was to come in his sophomore campaign.

“It’s definitely different coming into it knowing that teams will be game-planning for me and all that stuff,” Freiermuth said before the season.

Through six games this year, Freiermuth is on pace for more receptions and more receiving yards than he had last season. But those stats are skewed a little by his standout performance in Week 2 against Buffalo. Freiermuth easily surpassed his previous record of three catches in a game when he hauled in eight receptions for 99 yards and two scores.

KJ Hamler has gotten the majority of the targets from quarterback Sean Clifford through the air, while Penn State’s four-man running back rotation has limited the number of touches to go around as well.

“It’s definitely frustrating at times not being able to get the ball,” Freiermuth said Wednesday. “It’s definitely a challenge going into games this year trying to figure out what the [defensive] coordinator is going to call against me, as opposed to last year. It’s definitely different, but I think I’ve handled it well.”

Freiermuth has had to pick and choose his spots this season. He had what appeared to be a put-away touchdown on Saturday against Iowa. It was overturned after a long replay, but the point stands. The Nittany Lions are still going to rely on him in the red zone, and he’s going to need to continue to make plays when the ball comes his way.