Penn State’s trio of tight ends showed what they’re capable of in Auburn win
Brenton Strange, Theo Johnson, and Tyler Warren combined for six catches for 130 yards and contributed to each of the Nittany Lions' four touchdowns in Saturday's win over Auburn.
Theo Johnson likes to call himself and his two cohorts in Penn State’s tight end room “the three amigos,” guys that like to hang out together when they’re not in the football facility.
Once they’re on the football field together, however, the big and skilled trio of Johnson, Brenton Strange, and Tyler Warren have shown they can make a significant impression in a game as they did Saturday in a 28-20 victory over Auburn, contributing to all four of the Nittany Lions’ touchdowns.
“We’ve got a pretty close-knit group and I think it just makes it a whole lot better when you go to work with these guys and we’re all making plays together on Saturdays,” Johnson said Tuesday. “I think it’s a really great feeling to see guys that you work with so much get their recognition and get to make plays.”
Penn State coach James Franklin couldn’t wait to see the kind of impact that Johnson, Strange, and Warren would make under new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. He had to wait a little while, though; no tight ends caught a pass against Wisconsin, and the group quietly contributed three catches against Ball State.
The trio broke out Saturday for six catches, good for 130 yards, against Auburn. Strange caught a short touchdown pass that was set up by Warren’s 22-yard pass reception from wide receiver Jahan Dotson. Warren, a converted quarterback, took a snap in the Wildcat formation and hurdled over the center of the line for another score.
On the Lions’ initial touchdown, quarterback Sean Clifford found his tight ends on back-to-back plays, throwing over the middle to Strange for 23 yards, then finding Johnson on a seam route for 37. Strange later got behind the Auburn secondary and caught a pass from Clifford for 40 yards that set up Penn State’s fourth and final TD.
“I think we have a really talented tight end group,” Franklin said after the game. “We want to keep them involved. It’s really difficult when you have receivers making plays, you have tight ends making plays, you’re able to run the ball — we’ve got that type of balance. That’s a room that we believe in, we think is super talented. And we want to keep those guys involved as much as we possibly can.”
After redshirting as a freshman, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Strange started the last five games of 2020 replacing Pat Freiermuth, who missed the second half of the season with a shoulder injury. Both Johnson (6-6, 256) and Warren (6-6, 252) entered Penn State as freshmen last year. Johnson played in seven games with one start while Warren saw action in two games and kept his redshirt.
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Johnson said it didn’t bother the tight ends at Wisconsin when none of the three caught a pass.
“We have a really great attitude when it comes to that stuff because we know that we’re kind of the utility knife of the offense,” he said. “We know that we’ve got to do a lot of the dirty work. We’ve got to do the stuff that nobody else really wants to do, or can do. We’re just worried about doing what the team needs. At the end of the day, if there’s a win in that win column, we’re good.”
Perhaps the biggest revelation from the Auburn game was Warren showing his versatility from high school when he was named a two-time Virginia all-state quarterback. Franklin, who admires athletes who excel in more than one sport, called Warren’s basketball tape “as impressive as there is.”
“He was always big and strong and athletic,” Franklin said. “He’s done a great job in the weight room. We felt like we had an opportunity to develop him and then take advantage of his skills and talent.
“Theo played as a true freshman and we were able to redshirt Tyler, but now all three of them are playing and we want that to continue. He’s doing a great job. I think he’s got a really bright future. We love all three of those guys in that room.”
The tight end group will have challenges ahead, the first one coming Saturday at home against Villanova before a trip to Iowa for what could be a matchup of two top-10 teams on Oct. 9. Johnson said they all feel they can continue to compete at a high level.
“I think that our room is very confident right now and I think that’s something we’re expecting,” he said. “I think it was just a matter of time, but that’s something we’ve always talked about, just proving to ourselves and proving to everybody else what we’re capable of. So I think it feels really good to finally be able to start showing people what we’re all about.”