UMass TE Adam Breneman’s invitation to work at The Opening symbolizes how far he’s come

  • UMass tight end Adam Breneman, right, pulls in a touchdown pass in front of Hawaii defensive back Damien Packer, Nov. 26, 2016, in Honolulu. AP

  • Adam Breneman, of UMass, runs down the field with the ball during a game against Tulane, last season in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDREW J. WHITAKER

  • Adam Breneman, of UMass, runs for a touchdown in the first quarter against Boston College, last season at Gillette Stadium. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Monday, July 10, 2017

Adam Breneman could see himself in the kids he was speaking to. A younger, more naive version of himself.

Just over a week ago, UMass’ rising senior tight end spent four days working as a counselor at The Opening, in Beaverton, Oregon, at Nike’s football facility.

The annual event, which just completed its 21st year, is an invite-only camp for some of the nation’s top high school players. It boasts a long list of NFL stars among its alumni.

College stars and NFL staffers work as instructors with the high school players. Breneman was one of 15 players invited to work. He already knew Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, but connected with USC linebacker Cam Smith, and Alabama’s Calvin Ridley and Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk, who are both wide receivers.

“It was a great experience, probably one of the best experiences of my life,” Breneman said. “I was honored to be asked to come and be a counselor there with a pretty impressive list of guys from some pretty huge schools. It was an awesome few days out there.”

Breneman, who was a five-star recruit in high school, is technically an alumnus of the event. He was invited to participate before his senior season in Pennsylvania, but he suffered a knee injury and didn’t attend.

“I was ready to go and I tore my ACL two days before it opened,” Breneman said.

That started a string of injuries that derailed his promising career at Penn State and eventually led to him briefly quitting football.

The high school players he worked with in Oregon were stars. From his own experiences, he knew most of them expected college stardom followed by a smooth path to the NFL. Everything they’d been through until that point pointed in that direction. He shared his experience dealing with adversity with the campers.

“When you’re a four or five star in high school, everyone is telling you how great you are. It’s good for some of the young guys to hear that you’re going to face adversity. You just have to overcome it,” he said. “Things don’t always go like you planned. I told them that some of you are going to go in and be stars. Some of you are going to get hurt. Some of you are going to not play until you’re a junior or a senior. Some of you are going to transfer. I told them you’re going to hit road blocks. You have to keep pushing through. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m seeing that light now.”

That light hasn’t been a mere 60-watt bulb, but a full-on spotlight. He transferred to UMass last year and returned to both health and prominence. His invitation to work at the opening speaks his rise in stature nationally.

A year ago, the questions surrounding him were about how well his knee would hold up as he returned to the field. He played in all 12 games and caught 70 passes for 808 yards with eight touchdowns.

He’ll almost certainly be on the Mackey Award’s 2017 preseason watch list which comes out Tuesday. The award annually goes to the nation’s best tight end.

On Sunday, Pro Football Focus called him the highest-rated returning tight end in the Bowl Subdivision and Athlon named him a preseason third-team All-American in its annual preview magazine.

With 2016’s success under his belt, expectations will be higher and defensive attention will be greater right away. Unlike in 2016, when Breneman hadn’t even started learning the playbook yet, he has a year in the system and will be in much better shape.

“I’m right around 250 (pounds), which is what I want to play at,” he said. “I’m as strong as I’ve ever been, as fast as I’ve ever been. I’m light years ahead of where I was last season. It’s exciting for me to think how much better I can be when my body is where I need to be. At the same time there’s a lot of expectations and pressure you feel as an athlete. But the old saying is pressure makes diamonds.”

He was considered a likely 2017 NFL draft choice if he’d skipped his senior season. If he delivers on his goals to improve, he could climb draft boards for 2018.

“I’m trying not to think about the future. So much can change. So much can happen,” he said. “I’m just trying to help my team win as many games as possible.”

Preparation for that isn’t far off. UMass’ season starts early against Hawaii on Aug. 26, so preseason camp begins a week earlier as well. The Minutemen will be back on the field full time beginning July 31.

“I’m ready to get back out there. Training camp is one step closer to actual games. I think we’re 46 days til Hawaii. I’m ready to get out there.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage