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Football: Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki presents Ohio State with 78-inch challenge

Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki (88) celebrates one of his two first-quarter touchdown reception against Pitt on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, at Beaver Stadium. Penn State won, 33-14. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Ohio State junior linebacker Jerome Baker said he can jump as high as the ball is thrown. Even that might not be enough Saturday when he and the Buckeye defense attempts to cover Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki.

The massive receiving target is listed at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, but looking at him, he might be even bigger. He towers over defensive backs and runs faster than linebackers. But Gesicki’s most impressive skill is his vertical leap as he consistently corrals passes above the outstretched arms of defenders.

“He’s a very, very good athlete. He makes catches that men his size usually can’t make,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “Great flexibility in his upper body, can torque his body in all different ways and he has good hands.”

Before the season, Gesicki was named to the Mackey Award watch list — given to the nation’s top tight end — and honored as a preseason first-team All-American. He’s lived up to his billing through seven games as he has pulled down 24 receptions for 228 yards, including five touchdowns.

The Nittany Lions have talent at every skill position on offense — five players have between 16 and 32 receptions — so they don’t need to force feed Gesicki. They can pick and choose when to use quarterback Trace McSorley’s largest target.

“He’s another wide receiver, really,” Schiano said. “He’s positionally called a tight end but he has the skillset of a wide receiver.”

Defenses have not found any easy fixes for covering massive, skilled tight ends like Gesicki.

“Because the kid can run so well in cover, you’ve got to put an athlete [on the tight end], well now you’ve got a matchup problem: size,” co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Kevin Wilson said. “You put a big guy who can match up size, a lot of times that guy can’t cover.”

OSU junior linebacker Jerome Baker (17) prepares for a play during the season opener vs Indiana. OSU won 49-21. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

The Buckeyes have already to try to cover a receiver-like tight end once this season in Week 2 when they had to deal with Oklahoma tight end Mark Andrews, a massive 6-foot-5, 254-pound weapon in the Sooners’ receiving game. Andrews got hurt in the first quarter and did not return, but he stayed healthy long enough to make two catches for 23 yards and to demonstrate how the Buckeyes defend against talented receiving tight ends.

In the first drive, five different defenders lined up to cover Andrews on different plays — cornerbacks Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette, safety Damon Webb and linebackers Malik Harrison and Baker. Safety Jordan Fuller has also garnered reps in the slot this season, where Gesicki often lines up, and Schiano hinted he might be used there Saturday night. Ohio State will not — and can not afford to — use just one player to cover Gesicki.

If the Buckeyes were to solely use cornerbacks and safeties to cover the tight end, Gesicki could jump over them. And if they just used linebackers, Gesicki could out-run them, find open holes for McSorley to throw or pull them away from the line, leaving space for running back Saquon Barkley to make plays.

For a defensive coordinator, Gesicki is a matchup nightmare as each position group seems potentially exploitable by the massive tight end.

“[Gesicki’s] about 6-foot-7,” Schiano said. “We’ve just got to have different ways to try to get people on him.”

Though Ohio State’s defense has not faced many talented tight ends this season, it has struggled against the ones it has faced, as well as taller receivers like Indiana’s 6-foot-4 wideout Simmie Cobbs. When asked how the Buckeyes will be able to stop, or at least contain, Gesicki, Baker paused and pondered the question for five seconds before answering.

“Don’t allow it to be a jump ball,” Baker said. “Be physical on him before he even gets the chance to jump like that. When it’s that high, he’s going to be a tough one. Just got to play through his hands and some way, some how get it out.”

Baker and a multitude of other defensive players will be called on to outjump the 6-foot-6 former volleyball player, a nearly impossible task. Even Schiano was still searching for solutions.

When Schiano was asked by a reporter which defender could stop Gesicki, he said, jokingly, “You tell me who is the best matchup.”

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