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Comparing Pat to Heath all about the blocking
you see the comparisons, and your first reaction is to scoff. Heath Miller was a first-round pick anyway; Freiermuth, a second-round pick in the most recent draft. But media and fans couldn’t help but link the two tight ends because for the first time since Miller, the Steelers drafted a dual threat in Freiermuth, or at least as much threat as a blocker can provide.
Freiermuth can catch the thing, too. He’s celebrated at Penn State for never having dropped a pass in the red zone. “That’s true. I never dropped a pass in the red zone,” Freiermuth told a Zoom conference call after the first day of Rookie Minicamp. “You get very limited opportunities down there. When I got my number called, I wanted to make the most of it.”
Freiermuth holds the Penn State career touchdown receptions record for a tight end with 16. Overall, he caught 92 passes for 1,185 yards in his two-and-a-half seasons there. Enough for a grand nickname, right? Miller came out of Virginia in 2005 known as “Big Money.” But he asked reporters not to call him that. Please.
Like Miller, Freiermuth asked the same of those using his college moniker, “Baby Gronk.” “It came about because I’m from that area, wore No. 87,” Freiermuth said. “Obviously Gronk played for the Patriots and I grew up kind of watching him. I hate it. I think it’s pretty annoying being called ‘Baby Gronk.’ I’m trying to get away from that nickname. I don’t want to be called that.”
Miller wasn’t quite that adamant, but his style’s more hushed. That’s perhaps the first glaring difference between these two. “The energy he exudes,” Steelers tight ends coach Alfredo Roberts said of Freiermuth, “he is a serious but fun guy.” Like Rob Gronkowski?
Perhaps when Freiermuth’s throwing down in the end zone after a touchdown. But Roberts had a different comparison in mind for his new tight end. “Similar to Hunter (Henry),” Roberts said of a tight end he coached with the Chargers. “He’s built a little bit different. He will be a little bit different than anybody I’ve worked with in the sense of his build. It will be a fun — not even a project, because he is a lot more accomplished than a project.”
Freiermuth is listed at 6-foot-5, 251. He was born in the Boston suburb of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and grew up in nearby Merrimac. He attended Brooks School, where he lettered as an eighth-grader to begin a five-year high school career. He was an all-state linebacker as a junior and the No. 1 tight end recruit in the state as a senior, the same year Gronkowski was named first-team All-Pro with the Patriots for the fourth and final time.
How could such a nickname not follow Freiermuth to Penn State? All Freiermuth wanted to do as a freshman was get on the field, so he blocked. “I was a very adequate blocker in college,” Freiermuth said. “I was able to get the job done when I needed to. But up here, I want to bring back the mentality I had my freshman year, just go in there and block as hard as I can, make some plays in the run game. The plays in the pass game, they’re going to come.”
They did that freshman year. Freiermuth set a Penn State freshman tight end record and led Big Ten tight ends with eight receiving touchdowns. He was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten, and then as a sophomore was named second-team All-Big Ten after catching 43 passes for 507 yards.
As a junior, Freiermuth was named first-team All-Big Ten after playing only four games before injuring his shoulder. He still led all Big Ten tight ends with 310 receiving yards on 23 catches. A 74-yard touchdown catch allowed him to finish with a 12.9-yards-per-catch career average. Nineteen of his 92 career catches went for 20 yards or longer as Freiermuth proved he could also make big plays.
He seemingly has it all. “He can do some of the heavy lifting when we talk about getting in-line and doing some things,” said Roberts. “He can also work from the backfield because he can bend well and move well in space. We can flex him out if need be. In big packages, he can do a number of different things. I just like what he adds right now and what he’s going to grow into in the future.” “I can do it all,” said Freiermuth. “I think that’s kind of the prospect I was, just making sure I am very versatile and can do it all on the field and whatever’s asked, whether line up at fullback or as the extra Z-receiver. I’m ready to do whatever they ask me to do. I’m excited to see my progression in this offense.”
So is Ben Roethlisberger. Miller was one of the quarterback’s closest friends, and when he left the Steelers drafted Jesse James and put him close to Roethlisberger in the locker room. They did the same the next season with free agent Ladarius Green. The Steelers brought in Vance McDonald the following year, and, again, put him next to Roethlisberger in the locker room. Those tight ends never did become the security blanket Roethlisberger had in Miller, so Freiermuth becomes next in line.
“He actually called me the day after I got drafted,” Freiermuth said of Roethlisberger. “He reached out. He’s an awesome guy. He’s taking us - me and Najee and Kendrick - out to dinner. He texted back and forth a couple times with us. My locker’s actually next to him. It’s pretty cool seeing him. When I was a young kid watching the NFL, ‘Look, that’s Ben Roethlisberger.’ Now my locker’s right next to him. It’s pretty cool.” It will become more cool once Roethlisberger connects and the Heinz Field fans let Freiermuth have the H-e-e-a-a-t-h treatment. No doubt that’ll quickly morph into a nickname he’ll grow to love. M-o-o-o-o-o-t-h. It’s his destiny.