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From Bill O’Brien to Mark Whipple: UMass tight end Adam Breneman statistically having one of the best seasons in college football

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

Quarterback and lifelong friend Andrew Ford wasn’t the only one who tight end Adam Breneman reached out to before joining the Massachusetts football team.

Prior to his decision, Breneman, a transfer from Penn State, reached out to his former college coach and current Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien prior to enrolling at UMass to gather his thoughts on playing in Minutemen coach Mark Whipple’s tight end-friendly, pro-style offense.

“Right before I came here, I had reached out to [O’Brien],” Breneman said after Tuedsay’s practice. “We don’t talk a lot, obviously because we are busy, but we stay in touch. He recruited me for half a year and I played for him.”

“I reached out to him and he told me to go for it. I told him ‘hey, coach, I’m thinking about going to UMass and playing for coach Whipple.’”

“He said, ‘playing for coach Whipple will be the best thing you could ever do.’ I did it and it’s been working out pretty well since, right?”

Despite UMass’ (1-7) inconsistencies on both sides of the ball this year, Breneman has remained a constant threat and is statistically having one of the best seasons of any tight end in the nation.

Breneman currently leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in receptions for tight ends with 44, is third in receiving yards (484) and tied for fifth in touchdown receptions (four). His numbers lead the Minutemen in both receptions and yards, while he trails only Andy Isabella in touchdown catches.

“All I try to do is catch the ball,” Breneman said, laughing. “It’s something that I like to take a lot of pride in – just catching the ball and not dropping any passes.”

“I always say the opportunities are so precious of getting the ball thrown your way, you know? But there’s a lot [that goes into it], Andrew does such a good job of keeping his eyes downfield. We just kind of have this thing where we know where each other is going to be at all times.”

Aside from the well-documented high school connection between him and Ford, it’s been Whipple’s system that’s been a perfect fit for Breneman. Whipple, who’s had success with numerous tight ends from former Minutemen Jean Sifrin and Rodney Mills to current Seattle Seahawk Jimmy Graham, has taken advantage of Breneman’s versatility, lining him up in different positions all over the field.

“Coach Whipple’s system is awesome,” Breneman said. “To be able to play in this kind of system – being used the way I am, moving all around – is just so fun to play in. I’m getting the ball a lot. I just try to make plays, whatever they ask me to do. It doesn’t even feel like I have that many receptions, but I guess I do … It’s a combination of a lot. The offensive line is blocking well. Whenever you get that combination together with this kind of system we play in, good things happen, especially at the tight end position.”

But as successful as Breneman has become in Whipple’s offense, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound tight end owes a lot of that to his time with O’Brien on the Nittany Lions.

In their lone season together at Penn State in 2013, Breneman appeared in 11 games, hauling in 15 receptions for 186 yards playing alongside New York Jets second-round quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

Breneman was tied for second most receiving touchdowns (three) on the Nittany Lions, trailing only Jacksonville Jaguars Pro Bowl wide receiver Allen Robinson.

“It helped a lot,” Breneman said when asked if playing for O’Brien helped with the transition to UMass.

“Playing for Coach O’Brien was unbelievable. He was a great coach. I obviously wasn’t happy when he left for the NFL, but playing for him for a season – I still keep in touch with him, sometimes, now – was awesome. I learned so much about his football knowledge. Him and coach Whipple are kind of similar in that sense – their knowledge about offense and coaching.”

Aside from the NFL background, both Whipple and O’Brien share a common connection that they both played and coached at Brown. O’Brien was Whipple’s inside linebacker coach in 1994, while the previous year he served as the team’s tight ends coach while Whipple was finishing up his final year at New Haven.

“It’s kind of cool,” Breneman said. “We obviously had our tight ends coach at Penn State, but Coach O’Brien helped coach tight ends and it’s the same with Coach Whipple. He’ll pull me aside and help me out with stuff. Playing for O’Brien was a really neat experience. He was definitely what you call a player’s coach, he was fun to play with.”

However, it wasn’t at Penn State where O’Brien mastered the art of the tight end positon. Under the guidance of Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, O’Brien thrived as New England’s offensive coordinator in 2011, where he utilized a two tight-end offense with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

During the 2011 season under O’Brien, Gronkowski had his best statistical season posting career-highs in receptions (90), receiving yards (1,327) and touchdowns (17). That year Hernandez added 79 catches for 910 yards and seven touchdowns.

The tight end position became cool when the Patriots had Gronk and Hernandez,” Breneman said. “It kind of became a cool position at that point – everyone wanted to become a tight end at that point.”

Breneman added, “It’s just an important part of an offense. It used to be like the tight end was the easiest position to play – like anyone could play tight end – but now you need a playmaker at tight end because you can confuse the defense a lot. A lot of times too, we start the game with Travis [Reynolds] and I in the game. Teams think we could be lining up and running the ball down their throats, and then we split out and Travis and I play wide receiver, and [opponents] have their big package in the game, so they have their big linemen and linebackers in and we are running routes on them. That’s the thing, it’s that teams don’t know what you are going to do because we are versatile.”

As a tight end, Breneman knows he’s going to be asked to do a lot of different things from lining up out wide as a receiver to aligning next to the offensive line as a run blocker in a three-point stance. Although he prefers to play in the slot – what he did with Ford at Cedar Cliff High School – he knows that to be a successful tight end, you have to have the ability to do it all.

“Whenever your hands in the ground, the defensive ends have a tendency of trying to jam you up at the line, which can be tough to get off sometimes. I pretty much go everywhere.

“Being a good tight end, you have to be able to do everything. Sometimes it creates more mismatches when your hand is in the dirt – the defense could think you are staying in to block. But wherever they ask me to be – the backfield, out-wide, wherever – I try to do the best I can.”

Andrew Cyr can be reached at arcyr@umass.edu, and followed on Twitter @Andrew_Cyr.

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