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Predicting Michigan: The tight ends

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Predicting Michigan-TightEnds

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan

Michigan football made a few announcements this offseason that gutted the tight end depth for offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. The team’s top option throughout much of the last two seasons was Devin Funchess, who will be moved permanently to wide receiver for his junior season. Transitioning Funchess was much easier after the emergence of freshman Jake Butt, but a torn ACL sidelined the young star and left the Wolverines without their top two options at tight end, at least for the first few games of the season.

Brady Hoke opted against moving Funchess back to tight end, and will instead choose from a number of veteran options that have made smaller impacts during their Michigan careers.

The Starters

With the offense under construction after the hiring of Nussmeier, it remains to be seen what type of role the tight ends will play in 2014. During the spring game, the majority of Michigan’s sets featured one tight end, often junior A.J. Williams.

Williams played a very limited role in his sophomore campaign, catching just one pass for a two-yard touchdown in the loss at Iowa. The 6’6″ tight end started six games, but was rarely featured as an integral part of the offense. The junior will be asked to play a much bigger role in 2014, as he holds the No. 1 tight end spot on the depth chart and received the most reps during the spring game.

Fellow junior Keith Heitzman lineup up with Williams on the first team during double tight end sets at the spring game, revealing Nussmeier’s willingness to at least experiment with more than one tight end on the field.

Heitzman has played 23 games for the Wolverines in his career, but all of them have come on the defensive line. The 271-pound junior separated himself from the rest of the pack as the No. 2 tight end, but will likely be featured as a blocker and less of a receiving threat.

Butt, meanwhile, is expected to be out until Big Ten play, but when he returns, will slide back into a starting role. The 6’6″, 250-pound sophomore impressed as a true freshman in 2013, catching 20 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns. That’s five more catches and one more yard than Funchess had in his freshman campaign. Butt saved his best performance of the season for the matchup against his hometown Buckeyes, recording five catches for 85 yards and a score. Butt won’t match Funchess’ 2013 numbers, but will play a major role in the offense once he returns.

Projected Stats – Williams
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
9 100 11.1 1 7.7
Career Stats
2013 1 2 2.0 2 1 0.2
2012 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A
Totals 1 2 2.0 2 1 0.2
Projected Stats – Butt
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
21 250 11.9 4 27.8
Career Stats
2013 20 235 11.8 37 2 18.1
Totals 20 235 11.8 37 2 18.1
Projected Stats – Heitzman
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
16 200 12.5 2 15.4
Career Stats
2013 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A
2012 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A
2011 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A
Totals 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A

Veteran Depth

Tight end remains one of the thinnest positions on the Michigan roster leading into the 2014 season, but quality recruits over the past two seasons have provided the Wolverines with some talented options. The struggle for Nussmeier in 2014 will be finding a tight end that can both protect the quarterback and hurt defenses in the passing game.

Redshirt freshman Khalid Hill figures to be an option if Williams and Heitzman struggle, as the former consensus three-star offers Michigan more of a receiving weapon. Hill is smaller than the other tight ends, but makes up for it with quickness and essential receiving skills like strong hands and great route running. Hill is more likely to be a difference-maker in the future, but a strong spring could put him on the radar for 2014.

Projected Stats – Hill
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
13 150 11.5 1 11.5
Career Stats
2013 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A
Totals 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A


Michigan welcomed one key tight end prospect in the 2014 recruiting class in Ian Bunting. Bunting is a tall, but athletic tight end that should evolve into Michigan’s top receiving threat from his position. The freshman played wide receiver throughout much of his high school career, which molded him into the offensive threat that Hoke recruited.

Bunting figures to compete for playing time as a true freshman, since the Wolverines could really use a receiving threat from the tight end position. His versatility can only improve his chances to crack the lineup, as Nussmeier owns the option to line him up in the slot or out wide.

If a largely unproven wide receiver unit struggles during the non-conference season, expect the coaching staff to consider awarding Bunting more time at tight end to give the offense more options. The freshman fits the mold of Funchess and Butt as a pseudo-receiver at tight end.

Projected Stats – Bunting
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
10 150 15.0 1 11.5

Countdown to kickoff: 80 days

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

Countdown to kickoff-80

Predicting Michigan: The tight ends

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Rounding out the offensive portion of our Predicting Michigan series is the tight end position, which should be one of the most exciting to watch this season. Previously, we featured the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and offensive line.

Returning To The Offense

Devin Funchess needs to prove he can stay on the field in non-obvious passing situations

In the last few seasons, the Michigan offense has revolved around a spread rushing attack and featured less use of the tight end position as a result. When the spread offense was introduced, the preferred receiving options became small, fast athletes that could blow by defenders and make moves in space. As Brady Hoke takes the Wolverines back to a more physical style of play, tight ends have started to resurface in Ann Arbor.

In 2012, Devin Funchess burst onto the scene with 140 yards and two touchdowns in the games against Air Force and Massachusetts. As the season progressed, Funchess faded and had more than 15 receiving yards only once, when he caught a 29-yard touchdown against Iowa.

This year’s team will likely rely more on the tight end position. A renewed focus on rushing between the tackles means that size and blocking on the line will become more important. Also, Devin Gardner’s ability to keep plays alive and go through multiple options will give the tight ends a greater opportunity to catch passes even if they aren’t the primary route.

The Name We Know: Devin Funchess

Funchess will return to the team as the only familiar name at the tight end position that had a statistical impact. His early success made him an immediate fan-favorite on Saturdays at the Big House, and his lack of production late in the season was proof of how difficult it is to adapt to the physical play of the Big Ten. As Denard Robinson led the offense into conference play, he connected with the 6’5″ tight end less and less. Even against poor defensive teams like Illinois and Purdue, Funchess didn’t really show up on the stat sheet, catching only one pass in each contest. When Gardner was reinserted into the quarterback role, Funchess continued to have around one catch each game. This was partially because opponents caught on that when he was in it was to catch a pass, and partially to be used as a decoy because of his inability to block.

This season, after working with Gardner for an entire offseason, Funchess should be more like the player he was early in the season. Gardner isn’t afraid to run through three or four options before giving up on a play, so the tight ends will have a chance to catch more passes. Funchess will also play a big role in the blocking game, which will allow him to stay on the field more often, when running backs like Fitzgerald Toussaint and Derrick Green pound the ball up the middle. His size and strong hands will make him a threat in the red zone, and he can build off of his five touchdowns from last season.

Projected Stats
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
25 330 13.2 5 27.5
Career Stats
2012 15 234 15.6 30 5 18.0
Totals 15 234 15.6 30 5 18.0

Returning Players

There are four returning tight ends in addition to Funchess on the Michigan roster, but only one of them has ever recorded a catch. Dylan Esterline made a reception for seven yards in the 45-0 blowout of Illinois in Ann Arbor, but A.J. WilliamsJordan Paskorz and Michael Jocz haven’t been included in the receiving game in their careers. While Williams is known as a very good blocking tight end (he was recruited as an offensive tackle/tight end hybrid), the thin roster at this position is a result of the transition to the spread offense. When the speedy receivers were brought in, the fullbacks and tight ends were basically erased, so these players contributed very little during that time. This season, they may fill in to block or provide depth, but it is unlikely that they will play major roles in the offensive attack. Brady Hoke will find roles for them on special teams, because of their strength and size.

Recruits: Early Impact

Jake Butt caught a TD in Michigan's spring game and will make an impact this season

The 2013 recruiting class will play a big role at tight end. Two young recruits were brought in to help solidify a weak position on the team, and both players will have a chance to contribute in their freshman seasons.

Khalid Hill was a three-star recruit and is an interesting player at tight end. Due to his lack of superior size for the position, Hill isn’t the strongest blocker and can’t muscle up like other big players can. However, his body creates a different kind of matchup problem. Hill’s strength is in the receiving category, because he has surprising quickness and showed a great ability to run routes and catch the ball in high school. He doesn’t seem to be the prototypical tight end for a physical offense, but he could be the perfect player to get open and give Gardner another weapon in the passing attack.

Fellow recruit Jake Butt generated more buzz around Ann Arbor when he committed as a top-five tight end. Butt is a matchup nightmare for defenses at 6’6 because of his incredible athletic ability and coordination in the passing game. Robinson would have enjoyed throwing to this athletic tight end, because in high school Butt excelled at bringing down jump balls. Defenses will have a hard time finding a corner that can stop a receiver this big and athletic downfield.

Butt could improve in the blocking category, even though his size and athleticism make him an intimidating player across the line. Hoke will have Butt in the weight room working on his strength, and if he can add some bulk to his already-impressive body, this tight end could end up being one of the best all-round offensive threats in the country. This true freshman will likely be a major factor immediately during the 2013 season.

Projected Stats – Butt
Receptions Yards YPC TD YPG
25 260 10.4 4 21.7
Projected Stats – Hill
Receptions Yards YPC TD YPG
5 60 12.0 1 5.0

Wrapping Up

Michigan is still looking to find the type of tight end play it had in the past, with players like Tim Massaquoi and Tyler Ecker in 2004. With Funchess and Butt as potential starters, things are starting to look up. Not only are both players developed physically, they both pose a definite threat in the passing game. For a team with Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon as the main receiving targets, two big men with superior catching ability is a welcome addition to the offense. Expect Gardner to utilize the skills of the tight ends, and for 2013 to be the first year since before the Rich Rodriguez era that Michigan gets big contributions from the position.

National Signing Day: visualizing Michigan’s 2013 recruiting class

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Stay tuned in the coming days as we profile each of the 27 members of Michigan’s 2013 class.