Among its many other offensive deficiencies last season, Michigan’s offense lacked a consistent tight end threat in the passing game. Devin Funchess’ move to wide receiver left the tight end corps scrambling for a playmaker, and only one tight end finished the season with more than 100 receiving yards.
Enter, Jim Harbaugh. In his takeover of Ann Arbor, the new Michigan head coach brings with him a deep history of success at the tight end position. Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener, and Ryan Hewitt are just a few of the tight ends coached and recruited by Harbaugh at Stanford who ended up in the NFL. Ertz and Fleener each caught more than 50 passes for over 700 yards in the league last season, a trend Harbaugh surely had a hand in.
But does Harbaugh have the talent in place to turn Michigan’s tight ends into weapons in 2015? Here’s a look at the current and incoming members that make up the unit.
Jake Butt is the most likely Michigan tight end to enjoy a legitimate breakout season in 2015. Butt, one of the clear victims of the team’s quarterback struggles, has yet to put a complete season together, scoring twice and gaining more than 200 yards in each of his first two years.
The 6-foot-6 Pickerington, Ohio native has sure hands and solid athleticism and will catch the ball if it gets to him. He caught less than three passes per game last season, but figures to play a larger role in Harbaugh’s offensive game plan. Butt would especially benefit from Jake Rudock winning the starting job, as the fifth-year senior prefers shorter, safer passes to throwing balls downfield.
Despite catching just 41 passes in his first two seasons, Butt is a clear playmaker. He averaged 10 yards per catch last season and was named a member of the watch list for the Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end, last month.
The biggest uncertainty surrounding Butt is whether he can recapture the explosiveness he showed as a freshman before he tore his ACL, an injury that hampered him in 2014. If he can be the elite athlete fans saw flashes of two seasons ago, he will thrive in a featured role in Harbaugh’s offense.
|Projected Stats – Butt|
Michigan also returns a pair of tight ends who have seen significant playing time during their careers, but pose little threat in the passing attack. A.J. Williams, who scored a touchdown on his only catch in 2013, caught just four passes for 33 yards last season despite playing in all 12 games and starting four of them. Williams is a block-first tight end who was used to support an inexperienced offensive line last season. He’ll likely play a similar role as a senior, albeit losing some snaps to the pass-catching tight ends.
Khalid Hill is another blocking specialist who started three games for Brady Hoke in his final season with the Wolverines. Hill caught four passes for 37 yards and spent most of his time run and pass blocking on next to the line. Hill, like Williams, will likely see the field a bit less in 2015.
|Projected Stats – Williams|
|Projected Stats – Hill|
As explosive as Butt can be in the passing game, Michigan needs more than one target and a few blockers to turn the tight end position into a strength. Luckily for Harbaugh, there are two young tight ends ready to play a role for the Maize and Blue.
Though he never saw the field as a freshman, former three-star recruit Ian Bunting was a dangerous downfield threat at Hinsdale Central High School in the Chicago suburbs, catching 27 passes for 583 yards and four touchdowns. The 6-foot-7 Bunting offers a huge target with reliable hands who can go up and win a jump ball over defenders.
Harbaugh and his staff brought another huge tight end to Michigan on National Signing Day: Tyrone Wheatley Jr. Wheatley, whose father was hired to coach running backs at U of M, stands at 6-foot-6 and over 250 pounds, but that doesn’t hold him back as an athlete. He played defensive end and tight end in high school and will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses at Michigan.
He won’t blow defenders away with his speed and quickness, but he’s athletic enough to beat defenders to the ball and can break tackles after the catch.
With Harbaugh coaching him up, Wheatley has a chance to become the big, powerful home run threat the Michigan offense desperately needs.
|Projected Stats – Bunting|
|Redshirted in 2014|
|Projected Stats – Wheatley|
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