Not too many players have generated more anticipation for NC State this year than Trent Pennix, a senior tight end-ish who was a breakout pick in 2022 before coming down with the injury bug.
Pennix is the kind of player that allows an offensive coordinator to be creative, and he’s been a difference maker whenever he’s been able to stay on the field. He’s big at 6’3, 235, and he’s fast. The senior has been hand-timed under a 4.5 in the 40 yard dash. He’s really impressive physically, and that combo of size and speed is ripe for mismatch creation.
Your big tight end types that are good receivers can create so many issues for defensive coordinators, largely because of their dual role as run blockers in the box and receivers. When you add in Pennix’s athleticism, you get a guy who can turn a little creativity into a big play. Take this from Florida State two years ago.
State gets Pennix in space with a little play action. The linebackers flow toward the play side (their right) on the play action, and Pennix comes back across the formation as if he’s going to block the backside pursuit, but instead slips into the flat. The extra step in toward the play side from the linebackers creates enough space for Pennix to get up field, and his speed and open-field ability then turn this little leak play to convert a third down into a touchdown (he breaks the last tackle and scores).
Here’s another against UNC in 2021
The play action freezes the safety just long enough for Pennix to run by him. The safety can’t recover to Pennix or create any kind of collision because of Pennix’s speed. The play action really becomes a problem for defenses when you can sell run blocks with Pennix, because you can’t be a step slow.
This is all very good news, because it’s been documented many times how much these tweener players have thrived under Robert Anae. It was Jelani Woods at Virginia in 2021, who caught 44 balls for 598 yards and eight touchdowns. It was Oronde Gadsden at Syracuse in 2022, who caught 61 balls for 969 yards and six touchdowns including two against the Woflpack. Pennix is smaller than both these guys and won’t have the jump-ball ability of a Gadsden, but he is unquestionably faster than both.
Here’s Anae using alignments and pre-snap motions to get Woods in the endzone. This is a very basic play. You may have heard Robert Anae say that there aren’t really new concepts in football. This is not a new concept, but it’s dressed up well and creates a wide open man.
UNC is in man coverage and it’s mesh with a rub concept on the outside, two very common approaches to man coverage. The mesh route from the top of the screen creates confusion though when it initiates from the motion. UNC doesn’t communicate well when the motion happens, and you can see two different players try to pick up the route. One thinks they’re switching it off, the other thinks he’s carrying it through. Nobody is left to cover Woods.
Pre-snap motions and oddball alignments force communication, and the more communication, the more likely something is miscommunicated. Anae is good at using alignments and motions to force quick communication, and it creates problems. Guys like Pennix make communication errors harder to recover from because of their speed.
The other element at work here is the size. Watch the hit Jelani Woods takes here against Wake Forest. Windows become bigger with players like this, assuming they can execute the route, because of their ability to absorb contact. If a 5’8 guy is the receiver here, he likely gets decapitated, but Woods ends up in the endzone.
For Pennix, the strength is really on display here.
Pennix has a great chance to lead State in receptions and touchdowns this year if he can stay healthy. He’s too fast for a lot of linebackers, and he’s too big and physical for a lot of defensive backs to effectively make plays on the ball. With his skillset, Robert Anae at offensive coordinator, and question marks all up and down the roster at wide receiver, Pennix is going to be a focal point of the offense. We’ll see what it amounts to.