During summer nights earlier this year, when most college guys were out enjoying themselves or staying in air-conditioned areas to play video games, Mike Gesicki was looking for Penn State teammates with whom to play catch.

It wasn't simply something to occupy his free time. Gesicki went to Happy Valley as a highly recruited tight end in 2014, but his first two seasons resulted in just 24 catches and several dropped passes. The 6-foot-6, 253-pound junior vowed to do everything he could to improve himself before the start of the 2016 schedule.

"I would be lying in bed probably like 11 o'clock at night, and I would be so afraid that somebody was outworking me or somebody was doing something that I wasn't doing at that time," he said recently at Rose Bowl media day on campus. "So I would go around and see if guys wanted to go throw or catch for a little bit.

"Obviously I didn't want an opportunity to pass me by because you don't get this game forever, so I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity, and I think I was able to do so."

A self-described South Jersey kid "from the beach," Gesicki, of Manahawkin, N.J., turned his career completely around. He set single-season program records for tight ends with 47 catches and 668 yards, improved his blocking noticeably and received attention not only in the Big Ten but throughout the nation.

Gesicki said he used to spend time feeding off the criticism for motivation, but he eventually decided to keep moving forward with his work during and after practice, and it paid dividends.

"I think if you buy into it and listen to what everybody is saying, then you're going to have to recover mentally," he said. "I got to the point last year where I didn't care what people were saying. I didn't listen to what people were saying. I blocked everybody out, and I think it worked out for me in the long run."

Gesicki put together some highlight moments during the season. There was his one-handed catch of a long pass from Trace McSorley that went for 52 yards against Temple and a pair of acrobatic touchdown catches on which he capitalized on his leaping ability. They were a 45-yard score on which he outjumped two defenders against Michigan State and a 33-yarder that accounted for the Nittany Lions' initial touchdown in their Big Ten championship game win over Wisconsin.

McSorley is one teammate who has enjoyed Gesicki's improvement as much as anyone.

"Over the offseason, he put in a ton of work on his own behind the scenes, aside from what the entire team was doing," McSorley said. "So we knew Mike was preparing to have a big year, and we were expecting him to. He came in with the right mindset, and then he just started making plays. I think once he made a couple of plays, his confidence grew, and he was able to build from that."

Gesicki will have a chance to build some more next season, having announced last week that he will return for his senior year and "put a lifelong dream [of playing in the NFL] on hold for one year."

Before that, however, he will devote his full attention to preparing for his team's Rose Bowl game against Southern California on Monday and perhaps add to his highlight reel.

"It's been an unbelievable season," Gesicki said, "but I'm not done yet."

@joejulesinq