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Dan Murphy, ESPN Staff Writer 29d

How volleyball turned Mike Gesicki into Penn State's leap-frogging matchup nightmare

College Football, NCAA - Other, Penn State Nittany Lions

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Trace McSorley didn't flinch when he looked up to see a set of ankles soaring past his ears Saturday night in the end zone at Beaver Stadium. He has learned to trust that good things will happen whenever Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki leaves the ground.

A play earlier, McSorley had launched a jump ball in Gesicki's direction near the 10-yard line. Gesicki pulled it in over the head of a Michigan defender for his second long, table-setting catch of the first half. When McSorley reached the end zone on the ensuing snap, Gesicki decided to celebrate by jumping clear over the 6-foot quarterback's head.

"I was trying to chest-bump, but he didn't look at me so I just ended up going over the top of him," Gesicki said. "I get pretty excited."

Many of Gesicki's 24 catches this year have come thanks to his impressive jumping ability. The 6-foot-6, scheme-altering weapon has a mixture of size and athleticism that makes it virtually impossible to effectively cover him. His hurdling touchdown celebration was the latest addition to a growing video library of his battle against gravity.

Where do those hops come from? Gesicki gives much of the credit to his career as a high school volleyball player. Yes, volleyball. Imagine the poor teenagers who had to go head-to-head against this athletic behemoth with nothing but a thin layer of twine between them. Now, that's a reason to flinch.

The first recruiting letter Gesicki received from Penn State was signed by a man named Mark Pavlik. Pavlik doesn't coach tight ends or wide receivers for the Nittany Lions. He doesn't work in the recruiting office, either. He's the head coach of the men's volleyball program.

Pavlik didn't need long to see the size and physicality that would make the budding New Jersey star athlete a success in whatever sport he chose to pursue in college. Just in case it wasn't football, Pavlik wanted to let Gesicki know that he was blessed with the raw materials that could be shaped into an All-American-caliber middle blocker. Luckily for James Franklin and company, Gesicki opted to become an All-American-caliber tight end instead.

"Absolutely," Gesicki said when asked if his unorthodox spring sport in high school helped make him a better threat with deep balls. "I think it was just reps. The entire sport, especially the position I was playing, is jumping. Every day, I was jumping up and hitting 50 to 100 balls. It helped playing basketball, too. Being a three-sport athlete, they all kind of fed off of each other."

Basketball, where Gesicki set his school's scoring record and was named MVP of New Jersey's all-star basketball game, is a natural place to land for an athletic kid who reached 6 feet tall before arriving at high school. As for introducing him to the skills he learned from volleyball, Penn State fans and offensive coaches can direct their thanks to his big sisters, Ashley and Kelsey.

The Gesicki sisters took to volleyball early, and their home not far from the Jersey Shore had a permanent net in the back yard where all three kids played on a regular basis. It did not take long, they say, for Mike to catch up to them in the family matches behind their house.

He became a de facto ball boy when he had trouble sitting in the stands for his sisters' matches at Southern Regional High School. At the time, Gesicki was setting county records for the track and field team at his middle school -- clearing 6 feet in the high jump as a tween. He decided to try volleyball instead of track when he got to Southern because of the exciting pace of the game he saw when watching his sisters. That eventually led to two state championships for Southern and a New Jersey player of the year award for Gesicki.

Leaping ability has long been one of Gesicki's strongest assets. He won the dunk contest at halftime of that New Jersey all-star basketball game. He pulled out the same three moves -- a windmill, a 360 and leaping over a teammate -- to wow his teammates at Penn State this winter. 

Gesicki topped out at 38.5 inches the last time he measured his vertical leap, which would have put him just outside the top 10 performers at last spring's NFL combine. He said he hopes to be up above 40 when he is tested in Indianapolis someday down the road. Six players hit the 40-inch mark last spring, and among them only No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett weighs more than 220 pounds. Gesicki checks in at about 255 pounds.

It's not so much Gesicki's ability to look eye-to-rim with a basketball hoop that makes him stand out, though. It's the control he has while his hands are hovering 12 feet above the ground. Both his catches against Michigan were of the "go up and get it" variety.

Most athletic moves seen on a football field -- a big hit, a burst of speed, a jump cut -- are based on how much power a player can generate by pushing off of the turf. Volleyball players, as Pavlik explains, have to generate power for their big hits from their core while suspended in midair.

"They're not grounded at all, everything takes place in the air," Pavlik said. "I think you really get to know your body, how to use it and what you have to do when you have no support. That part of it translates really well for Mike."

Football coaches took notice, and several of them visited what was likely their first high school volleyball match to see Gesicki's athleticism. ("A lot of them were confused, honestly," Gesicki said.) It didn't take long before Pavlik's recruiting letter was joined by a regular onslaught of similar notes from football programs around the country.

When he arrived at Penn State, Gesicki's teammates took notice, too.

"His athletic ability is what separates him," McSorley said. "His leaping ability makes it tough for anyone to cover him. You put the ball high in a spot where only Mike can get it, and it doesn't matter who is covering him, he usually comes down with it. It's a tremendous nightmare."

Penn State's tremendous nightmare used to strike fear into the hearts of New Jersey's best boys' volleyball players. Southern's coach, Eric Maxwell, remembers the facial expressions Gesicki used to draw from the unfortunate middle blockers who lined up across the net from him. Now at least Gesicki's opponents have the luxury of hiding their wide eyes inside a football helmet.

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