I remember the first couple of times I interviewed Mike Gesicki during his playing days at Southern Regional. Mike was not afraid of the microphone and handled himself pretty well for a high school student-athlete. During his senior year, he appeared on the Shore Sports Network’s weekly high school football show at a time when he was a high profile recruit who had not made his college choice.

I had been lobbying him to attend Penn State but when he showed up wearing an Ohio State shirt I assumed he was bound for Columbus. Gesicki insisted that night on our show that he had not made a decision and I should not read anything into the red Buckeyes shirt…it was just the one he grabbed.

Also appearing on the show that evening was another highly-recruited Shore Conference football standout, Saeed Blacknall of Manalapan High School. He had already made a verbal commitment to Rutgers which was a big get for the Scarlet Knights as Blacknall was considered one of the best wide receivers in the Northeast.

As you can see in the above picture the two posed together during that night and I figured they would play against one another at some point as Rutgers was joining the Big Ten and that would mean a date with Ohio State at some point. That picture was taken in December of 2013 and before long things would change dramatically for the duo. On signing day in February Gesicki and Blacknall both signed with Penn State and became teammates and now more than four years later are preparing for their senior seasons in Happy Valley as practice begins Monday.

Mike Gesicki, Townsquare Media

Gesicki is coming off a breakout junior season in which he set school records for receptions (48) and yardage (679) by a tight end while scoring five touchdowns, including one against USC in the Rose Bowl. After passing on entering the NFL Draft this past spring the former Southern three-sport standout enters the season as one of the nation’s top tight ends and pro prospects. Gesicki had the honor this week of being one of three Nittany Lions seniors to represent the program during the Big Ten Media days in Chicago and answered questions carefully and with confidence. Ironically it was only five years ago that former Southern standout Glenn Carson appeared at the same media event representing Penn State. Clearly, the Manahawkin to State College connection has worked well.

Saeed Blacknall, Penn State Athletics

Like Gesicki, Blacknall was not redshirted and was among nine freshmen who saw action in his first season appearing in all 13 games and catching one touchdown pass. He would start three games as a sophomore and again caught one touchdown pass and his junior season started slowly due to injury. However, his breakout performance came with the spotlight on as in the Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin the former Manalapan Brave caught six passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns of 40 and 70 yards. Blacknall was suspended for the Rose Bowl but heads into practice as one of the key offensive weapons for quarterback Trace McSorley. Both Blacknall and Gesicki are two-time members of the Academic All-Big Ten team.

Another former shore player expected to play a big role in the Nittany Lions success this fall is junior linebacker, Manny Bowen. The ex-Barnegat Bengal started 12 games as a sophomore and was fifth on the team with 68 total tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss (tied for 2nd). Bowen like Blacknall was suspended for the Rose Bowl so probably has a little extra motivation to get off to a fast start.

Manny Bowen, Penn State Athletics

Penn State is coming off a surprising 11-3 season which included their first outright Big Ten title since 1994. Prospects are high for the upcoming season which opens on September 2 against Akron at Beaver Stadium. The schedule is loaded with challenges including a three-week stretch featuring a home game against Michigan and back-to-back road trips to Ohio State and Michigan State.