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Next in Line: Penn State TE Theo Johnson Ready to Make his Mark While Continuing Tradition

Theo Johnson hauls in a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

Theo Johnson didn’t put up monster numbers at Penn State.

He never had more than 341 yards and a season and never scored more than seven touchdowns.

Perhaps Johnson would have put up better numbers at a school that didn’t have as strong of a reputation for churning out NFL-caliber tight ends.

One of those tight ends, Pat Freiermuth, was at Penn State when Johnson started his college football career in 2020.

Penn State also had Brenton Strange, a man who’s a year older than Johnson and wound up being a second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2022. Zach Kuntz was a top-five prep TE in the country when Penn State signed him. He ended up transferring to Old Dominion. Kuntz, too, is now in the NFL with the Jets.

But that crowded room didn’t deter Johnson from picking PSU over schools such as Georgia, Iowa and Michigan.

It drove him to do it.

“That was a huge reason why I chose Penn State as a young high school kid,” Johnson told reporters at his NFL Combine presser Thursday morning. “Just looking at the lineage of tight ends that have come out of Penn State. It excited me to continue that tradition. But also to leave my own mark. Moving forward in the future. I think I’ve done that, and I’m looking forward to the kids that are coming after me. We have a lot of really young, good talent. So I think that tradition’s going to continue on for a long time.”

Before Johnson got to Penn State, the school churned out Jesse James and Mike Gesicki, who both made it to the league.

After Johnson leaves, Penn State will likely send his former teammate, Tyler Warren– who’s entering his fourth season at PSU–, to the NFL, and younger players such as Andrew Rappleyea might not be too far behind.

As for the present, Johnson’s focused on doing what he can to impress NFL teams and went a long way toward doing that at the Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, earlier this month.

Johnson feels that experience was “huge” for him.

“Just being around great competitors across the country, guys that are going to be playing at the next level,” he said. “I think it was really cool just to be able to be myself. Get a system that isn’t overly complex and is just made to let your athletes showcase their abilities, and I think I was able to do that down there.”

Reflecting on his past, Johnson said he feels Penn State allowed him to “showcase all that a tight end can do.”

“Line up in the backfield as a fullback,” he said, “flexed out wide in the slot. Those times I was isolated one-on-one when I was out wide. So you’re able to showcase everything that a tight end can do. That was a unique experience for me because I’m able to show NFL teams that I’m able to line up anywhere on the field if you need me to.”

Throughout the draft process, Johnson’s been talking with people such as Freiermuth, who wished him luck.

“One thing he’s always told me is that Penn State’s going to prepare you really well,” Johnson said, “not only for this pre-draft process but for the next level just with how coach Franklin carries his program.”

Johnson described Freiermuth as “his guy.”

“He was someone that, when I came in as a young kid, I kind of looked to him for guidance and to see how to go about my business,” Johnson said. “Because at the time, he was a bonafide draft pick. So I have a great relationship with him.”

Freiermuth went into the draft at 6-foot-5 and 258 pounds. Johnson hasn’t measured yet but is listed at 6-foot-6, 260. Johnson feels his size is something that separates him.

“I think the big thing for me that sets me apart from the rest of the guys in this class is I feel like I have unique size and movability for my size,” Johnson said. “I think I can utilize my size and my speed very uniquely, so I think that sets me apart from the other tight ends.”

Of course, Penn State strength coach Chuck Losey and company helped with that size.

Johnson described Penn State’s workouts as “barbaric,” and meant it in the best possible way.

“Very difficult and challenging,” he said, “not only physically but mentally. But it brings everything out of you, and seeing what I was as a young freshman kid coming out to where I am now, a lot of that is because of the hard workouts I had to do and the things that I had to overcome to be able to improve, to be able to be successful in that program.”

On the field, Johnson, despite being as good as he is, had to compete hard for playing time due to the talents of Warren– who tied Johnson for the team lead with seven touchdowns– as well as Strange, going back to the 2022 season.

This could have led to some problems within the position group, but Johnson says that never happened.

“There’s some plays that only one tight end’s going to get involved,” he said. “So we’re competing every day in practice, trying to get that opportunity in a game. But it was never any selfishness. There was never any pouting or not looking out for each other. And it was a really cool experience because we have someone that you’re not only so close with but you’re rooting for at the same time and you’re competing with them.”

Johnson feels people “like to doubt Penn State tight ends until it comes to the pre-draft process.”

“But at the end of the day,” he said, “real football players know that Penn State produces some of the best tight ends.”

Johnson is set to be next in line for PSU’s tight ends in the NFL.

He feels he’s ready, and his alma mater is a big reason why.

“You know, Penn State tight ends aren’t very sexy,” he said. “We don’t have the big numbers, the big stats, but we do the gritty stuff, the stuff that’s not pretty, the stuff that a lot of tight ends don’t really want to do, and that’s a lot of stuff that the NFL teams are looking for.”

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