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Posts Tagged ‘Tight Ends’

Predicting Michigan: The tight ends

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016


Predicting Michgian 2016-TightEnds

Jake Butt(Patrick Semansky, AP)

Previous: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers

No position group saw its stock rise more than the tight ends when Jim Harbaugh took over in Ann Arbor. In Year 1, a handful of Michigan tight ends took on bigger roles in the offense, led by an All-American.

But the most obvious difference in Ann Arbor is the urgency with which Harbaugh is seeking out the best tight ends in the country. The 2016 recruiting class alone included three tight end commits and two preferred walk-ons.

Will the tight ends’ role in the offense continue to grow? All signs point to yes.

Returning Starters

One of Michigan’s best players and one of the best offensive weapons in the country decided to return to school for his senior year. When Jake Butt announced his intention to stay in Ann Arbor, Michigan’s offense gained one of the toughest offensive matchups in college football.

Butt exploded during his junior year, more than doubling his career receiving yards and receptions. His 51 catches were good for second on the team and he trailed only Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh with 654 receiving yards.

Though he finished with only three touchdowns on the season, Butt regularly demonstrated his knack for making the spectacular play. In the season opener, Butt’s fingertip catch over two Utah defenders was one of the best plays of the season. When Michigan needed every bit of offense it could get in Indiana, Butt came through with seven catches, 82 yards and a touchdown.

The 6-foot-6, 250-pound senior will look to improve his play in big games this season after catching only six passes for 58 yards combined against Michigan State and Ohio State. Butt has the size, athleticism, and now, experience to be one of the best targets in the country.

Projected Stats – Butt
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
60 700 11.7 6 53.8
Career Stats
2015 51 654 12.8 56 3 50.3
2014 21 211 10.0 29 2 21.1
2013 20 235 11.8 37 2 18.1
Totals 92 1,100 12.0 56 7 30.6
Returning contributors

Besides Butt, Michigan doesn’t have much on-field experience returning at the tight end position. A.J. Williams caught 12 passes for 129 yards as a senior, but no other Wolverine tight end caught more than five passes.

Ian Bunting

Ian Bunting could be poised for a breakout season (Tony Ding, AP)

One player who showed signs of breaking out early last season was Ian Bunting, who enters his junior season at 6-foot-7 inches tall and over 250 pounds.

Bunting began the 2015 season as Jake Rudock’s second favorite tight end target, catching four passes for 53 yards during the non-conference season. But once the Big Ten schedule arrived, Bunting disappeared for eight games, not catching a single pass, though he did have one 17-yard grab in the Citrus Bowl.

He doesn’t have as much natural receiving ability as some of the other tight ends on the roster, but Bunting is the most likely returning player to make some noise behind Butt this season. He has solid hands and has shown an ability to pick up yards after the catch. His enormous frame doesn’t hurt, either.

Speaking of huge frames, Michigan also has two big tight ends who didn’t catch a single pass last season, but figure to be in the offensive mix very soon. Tyrone Wheatley caused a stir at the spring game when he caught a pass over the middle and lumbered for a solid gain. The former four-star recruit is a strong, gifted athlete who has good hands for a 280-pound target.

Also a defensive lineman in high school, Wheatley has no issue doing the dirty work Harbaugh expects from tight ends in the trenches. His biggest hurdle is becoming a more comfortable offensive player who runs tight routes and gaining the awareness to make adjustments on the fly.

Another familiar name to watch is Zach Gentry, who was one of Harbaugh’s first commits at Michigan and transitioned from quarterback to tight end last season.

Gentry showed up in a few big plays during the spring game, but like Wheatley and Bunting, it’s his size that really stands out. If he grows more comfortable at the position, he will become a nice mismatch for Michigan in the short passing game.

Projected Stats – Bunting
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
20 180 9.0 1 13.8
Career Stats
2015 5 72 14.4 21 0 7.2
2014 0 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 5 72 14.4 21 0 7.2
Projected Stats – Wheatley
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
8 75 9.4 0 5.8
Career Stats
2015 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Totals N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Projected Stats – Gentry
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
10 100 10.0 1 7.7
Career Stats
2015 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Totals N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
New Faces

As I mentioned above, Michigan stacked its roster with young tight ends this offseason, highlighted by a trio of commits who have a chance to crack the rotation right away.

Devin Asiasi arrives in Ann Arbor as the most highly-ranked tight end commit. Asiasi brings Harbaugh the complete package as he can catch and run with the ball in the passing game and also block in the trenches. It’s well documented that offensive players from De La Salle High School in California spend time perfecting their blocking ability, and at nearly 300 pounds, Asiasi is a beast in that regard.

Michigan’s other two tight end commits, Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks, both check in at 6-feet-5 inches tall and specialize as receivers. McKeon has been committed to the Wolverines since the summer of 2015 and is the purest downfield receiver of this group. He’s fast for a tight end and has wide receiver-type hands. Eubanks, on the other hand, should be more of a short game weapon. When Butt graduates, Eubanks will be a candidate for more red zone targets if he proves he can hang onto the ball.

Michigan also welcomes two preferred walk-ons to the roster in Dan Jokisch and Dane Drobocky.

Projected Stats – Asiasi
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
20 230 11.5 1 17.7
Projected Stats – McKeon
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
5 80 16.0 0 6.2
Projected Stats – Eubanks
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
Redshirt
Meet the Rest

Michael Jocz: Senior, 6-4, 239, from Novi, Mich. (Novi)
No career stats
Joseph Files: Sophomore, 6-4, 252, from Lake Orion, Mich. (Cranbrook Kingwood)
No career stats
Kenneth Ferris: Sophomore, 6-5, 237, from Fowlerville, Mich. (Fowlerville)
No career stats

New in Blue: 2018 TE/DL Leonard Taylor

Friday, April 1st, 2016


Leonard Taylor(247 Sports)

Leonard Taylor – TE/DT | 6-6, 258 | Springfield, Ohio (Springfield)
ESPNN/A RivalsN/A 2474-star, #3 DT Scout: 4-star, N/A
247 Composite: N/A
Other top offers: Ohio State, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Nebraska, Louisville, Penn State

Less than two weeks after landing a commitment from 2018 linebacker Antwuan Johnson, Michigan picked up his teammate, Leonard Taylor. The Springfield, Ohio tight end/defensive end pledged his commitment to Jim Harbaugh following Friday night’s spring game.

Taylor is rated as a four star according to 247 and Scout, the only of the four major recruiting services to have released their 2018 ratings to date. 247 ranks Taylor as the third-best defensive tackle in the class and the 22nd-best overall player in the class. No other site has ranked the 2018 class yet.

As mentioned in Johnson’s New in Blue post, Taylor plays for former NFL safety Maurice Douglass, who sent Roy Roundtree, Michael Shaw, Brandon Moore, Mike McCray, and Reon Dawson to Ann Arbor while at Trotwood High School. However, given that Johnson and Taylor are among the best 2018 players in the state of Ohio, Harbaugh will have to fight to keep them away from Urban Meyer over the next 22 months. Still, it’s great early momentum, and Harbaugh can build on that with a great season this fall.

New in Blue: 2016 TE Devin Asiasi

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016


Devin Asiasi(Isaiah Hole, 247 Sports)

Devin Asiasi – TE | 6-3, 270 | Concord, Calif. – De La Salle
ESPN: 4-star, #3 TE Rivals: 4-star, #2 TE 247: 4-star, #8 TE Scout: 4-star, #4 TE
Other top offers: USC, UCLA, Alabama, Auburn, Oregon, Tennessee, Miami, Nebraska, ND

Michigan’s big National Signing Day haul concluded with a commitment from Concord, Calif. tight end Devin Asiasi. The De La Salle product chose the Wolverines over his home-state schools, USC and UCLA.

Asiasi is a consensus four-star recruit according to the four major recruiting services. Rivals ranks him the highest as the second-best tight end in the class, and 46th-best overall player in the class. ESPN ranks him as the third-best tight end and 44th overall, while Scout has him fourth and 67th, and 247 has him eighth and 218th. Per the 247 Composite, Asiasi is the nation’s third-best tight end and 74th-best overall player in the class.

Scout is very complimentary of the big tight end, listing his strengths as ability to beat jams, frame, and hands and concentration. They note his area to improve as elusiveness with catch. At 6-foot-3, 270 pounds, he has good size to be a complete tight end, both catching and blocking. Scout expands on their analysis.

“Asiasi is a huge tight end target who could honestly have even more upside as a defensive end down the road. He’s pushing 270 pounds and will have no problem stepping in to a college offense and being physically able to handle those battles in the trenches. Where he surprises people is with his ability to run and catch. He’s a very coordinated athlete for his size and can get down the field. He also has very soft hands and will be that reliable 3rd down pass catcher every quarterback loves to have. He’s a tremendous blocker and comes from a system at De La Salle where you learn to block early on or you won’t play. As long as he can keep his weight down, Asiasi should be a tremendous tight end at the next level with Sunday potential.”

After Michigan missed out on Isaac Nauta, who chose to remain home and attend Georgia last month, Harbaugh turned his attention to Asiasi, drawing him to campus two weekends ago and ultimately, landing his commitment. Asiasi joins Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks as tight ends in the class. Harbaugh’s affinity for using tight ends has been a major draw, and with Jake Butt graduating following next season, the spot is wide open beginning in 2017.

New in Blue: 2016 TE Nick Eubanks

Thursday, January 28th, 2016


Nick Eubanks(Scout.com)

Nick Eubanks – TE | 6-6, 230 | Fort Lauderdale, Fla. – American Heritage
ESPN: 4-star, #2 TE-H Rivals: 4-star, #9 TE 247: 4-star, #11 TE Scout: 3-star, #29 TE
Other top offers: Alabama, LSU, USC, Georgia, Oregon, Florida, Auburn, Texas, Miami, Nebraska

A day after landing Winter Garden, Fla. receiver Eddie McDoom and McKeesport, Pa. athlete Khaleke Hudson, Michigan’s recruiting class grew again with a somewhat unexpected commitment from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. tight end Nick Eubanks. The American Heritage product tweeted his commitment just before 5pm Eastern time.

Eubanks is a four-star according to ESPN, Rivals, and 247, but just a three-star according to Scout. ESPN ranks him the highest as the second-best tight end/H-back and 258th-best overall product. 247 ranks him as the 11th-best tight end and 269th-best player in the class, while Rivals has him ninth-best, but not ranked nationally. Scout is the outlier, listing him as the 29th-best tight end.

Scout lists his strengths as red zone weapon, running ability, and size, while listing his areas to improve as blocking ability and hands and concentration. As of now at least Scout’s analysis sounds quite a bit like Devin Funchess:

“A tight end with a great frame and the ability to play on the line or to be flexed out. Has great length, he knows how to extend for the football, and he can use that to his advantage. He will fill out, add weight, and get stronger. Solid blocker, but can get better at the point of attack. More comfortable now flexed as a big wide receiver going out for passes. Has good athleticism. Solid hands, but he can be more consistent there.”

Eubanks caught 23 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns during his senior year at American Heritage this past fall. The year before, he caught 26 for 408 and four scores.

Prior to his commitment, Eubanks was projected to go to Alabama, which had 57 percent of his crystal balls on 247. Florida had 29 percent, Baylor nine percent, and Miami the remaining seven. But he visited Michigan on Wednesday and committed to the Wolverines based on the way Jim Harbaugh told him he would be used, per 247’s Steve Lorenz.

“I chose Michigan because it’s a better fit for me,” Eubanks said. “I can play right away as a true freshman. It’s best for my future and for my work ethic. Plus coach Harbaugh coached Vernon Davis so I know he knows how to use the tight end. Michigan showed me stuff I’ve never seen before. Not at Florida or at Alabama. How they throw the ball to their tight end. How they flex the tight end out and use the position as a hybrid. No other school I was considering does that. That shocked me and shook my mind.”

Harbaugh has been targeting a second tight end in the class to join Sean McKeon, and after top target Isaac Nauta chose to stay in his home state of Georgia, attention turned to Eubanks, Concord, Ca. native Devin Asiasi, and Nixa, Mo. native Chase Allen. The latter is expected to announce between Michigan, Nebraska, and Iowa State on Friday, but Eubanks preempted it with his own commitment to the Wolverines. Asiasi will announce his decision on National Signing Day next Wednesday along with defensive tackle teammate Boss Tagaloa.

Eubanks will join a talented pass tight end crew in Ann Arbor, led by senior Jake Butt, who was named the Kwalick-Clark Big Ten Tight End of the Year this past season after catching 51 passes for 654 yards and three touchdowns. However, after Butt, the tight end who caught the second-most passes last season, A.J. Williams (12 for 129 yards), is out of eligibility, leaving senior Khalid Hill (four for 71), junior Ian Bunting (five for 72), senior Henry Poggi (one for two), and sophomore Tyrone Wheatley. Since he’s not an early-enrollee, it will be hard for Eubanks to grab a lot of time in the regular rotation this fall, but if he can prove he can catch he will at least get a chance to contribute before stepping into a bigger role in 2017 and beyond.

Predicting Michigan 2015: The tight ends

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015


PredictingMichigan-TightEnds
Jake Butt

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.

Returning starter

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
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
45 525 11.7 7 40.4
Career Stats
2014 21 211 10.0 29 2 21.1
2013 20 235 11.8 37 2 18.1
Totals 41 446 10.9 37 4 19.4

Role players

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
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
5 40 8.0 0 3.1
Career Stats
2014 4 33 8.3 12 0 2.8
2013 1 2 2.0 2 1 0.2
2012 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A
Totals 5 35 7.0 12 1 1.0
Projected Stats – Hill
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
3 25 8.3 0 1.9
Career Stats
2014 4 37 9.3 12 0 6.2
2013 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A
Totals 4 37 9.3 12 0 6.2

Reinforcements

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
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
20 230 11.5 1 17.7
Career Stats
Redshirted in 2014
Projected Stats – Wheatley
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
30 450 15.0 3 34.6

Meet the rest

Chase Winovich — sophomore, 6’3″, 230 from Jefferson Hills, Pa. (Thomas Jefferson), no career stats
Michael Jocz — senior, 6’4″, 231 from Novi, Mich. (Novi), no career stats

New in Blue: 2015 tight end/defensive end Tyrone Wheatley Jr.

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015


Tyrone Wheatley Jr(Scout.com)

Tyrone Wheatley Jr. – TE/DE | 6-6, 260| Manlius, N.Y. – Canisius
ESPN: 4-star, #12 TE Rivals: 4-star, #13 TE 247: 4-star, #13 TE Scout: 4-star, #25 DE
Other top offers: Alabama, USC, UCLA, Oregon, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Miami, Nebraska

The new Michigan coaching staff is keeping it in the family with a commitment from legacy recruit Tyrone Wheatley Jr on National Signing Day. The son of the former Michigan great and current running backs coach pledged his commitment on Wednesday afternoon after a long recruitment that came down to Michigan and UCLA.

Wheatley is a consensus four-star recruit according to the four major recruiting sites. ESPN ranks him as the 12th-best tight end in the class, while Rivals and 247 rank him 13th. Scout ranks him as the 25th-best defensive end in the class. Scout’s Brian Dohn had this to say about Wheatley:

“Wheatley plays tight end and defensive end, but he looks more comfortable and natural on defense. He gets off the ball quickly, but sometimes gets upright too quickly. Wheatley has the size to overpower an offensive tackle, and also can use his speed to get around the edge. In addition, he can run a play down from behind and is versatile enough to move inside and play defensive tackle if he adds the weight.”

While Michigan missed out on top tight end target Chris Clark when he chose UCLA this morning, Wheatley is likely to wind up at tight end. It’s a deep and talented position for Michigan with junior Jake Butt, redshirt sophomore Khalid Hill, and redshirt freshman Ian Bunting. At 6’6″, 260, he has the size to play right away, and he will have a chance to work his way into playing time in Harbaugh’s tight end-friendly offense.

Bellomy, Heitzman to transfer from Michigan

Friday, January 30th, 2015


Bellomy-Heitzman

Four days after running back Justice Hayes announced his intention to transfer, new head coach Jim Harbaugh granted two more fifth-year seniors-to-be a release from the program. Quarterback Russell Bellomy and tight end Keith Heitzman both announced on Friday that they will seek a grad-year transfer to play out their final season of eligibility.

Bellomy appeared in six games during his four seasons at Michigan, completing 4-of-23 passes for 46 yards, no touchdowns, and four interceptions. The Arlington, Texas native entered the 2012 Nebraska game late in the second quarter in relief of an injured Denard Robinson and struggled to move the ball as the Wolverines lost 23-9. In that game — the most extensive action of his career — Bellomy completed just 3-of-16 passes for 38 yards and three interceptions while rushing five times for no yards.

He missed his junior season due to a torn ACL suffered in spring practice and came into the Penn State game last season for two series in relief of Devin Gardner. On those series, he went 0-of-2, but most importantly, didn’t make a mistake to take Michigan out of field goal range. Matt Wile kicked a 42-yard field goal to tie the game at 13 late in the third quarter.

Heitzman played in 36 games in three seasons after redshirting in 2011. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, he appeared in 12 games as a reserve defensive end, recording seven tackles, one for loss, and recovering a fumble. In 2013, Heitzman started seven games at defensive end and played in all 12, recording eight tackles and half of a tackle for loss. Last season, he moved to tight end and caught two passes for 32 yards and one touchdown, which came against Indiana.

Both Bellomy and Heitzman expect to receive their degree from the University of Michigan this spring before transferring. Neither has picked a destination yet, but both stressed their love and appreciation for Michigan in Instagram posts on Friday afternoon. We wish both the best wherever they end up.

Click here to read Bellomy’s Instagram post. Click here to read Heitzman’s Instagram post.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Tight ends (part two)

Thursday, June 26th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-TE

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the best tight ends in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily the players who have had the most success in previous years. Part One of our tight end rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed who is in the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top 10 tight ends. If you missed yesterday’s post, I encourage you to read it before proceeding. With that said, let’s unveil who will be the five best tight ends in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously
Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two.
Running Backs: Part One, Part Two.
Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two.
Tight Ends: Part One

5. Dan Vitale, Northwestern | Junior – 6’2”, 225 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 34 382 3 11.2 53 31.8
2012 28 288 2 10.3 41 22.2
Career Totals 62 670 5 10.8 53 26.8
(Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune)

(Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune)

Dan Vitale is not your typical Big Ten tight end. So much so, in fact, that the position he plays at for Northwestern is not even referred to as “tight end.” Instead, the position is called “superback.” Whereas generic Big Ten tight ends mostly put their hand in the dirt next to an offensive tackle, the superback is a hybrid between a tight end, wide receiver, and fullback that lines up all over the field. Sometimes the superback will be lined up as an additional offensive lineman in a goal-line formation. Other times he will be in the slot or in the backfield adjacent to the quarterback. To fulfill all of these responsibilities, generally, the superback must be smaller, more athletic than the prototypical tight end. Ultimately, the key to being an effective superback in Northwestern’s spread offense is to be versatile. This is what makes Vitale such a dangerous tight end in the Big Ten.

Northwestern’s staff previously has said that finding a superback is problematic because there is a set of narrowly defined criteria that player must fit to be a superback. Yet, the Wildcats appear to have found one in Vitale. He improved upon a promising finish to his freshman campaign in 2012 to become Northwestern’s third-best receiver in 2013. He registered a target rate of 15.9 percent, which not only was the third-highest on the team, but also the third-highest among all Big Ten tight ends. With this share of balls thrown in his direction, Vitale tallied 34 receptions and 382 receiving yards—the second- and fourth-most among returning Big Ten tight ends, respectively. He also scored three touchdowns, all of which were in the red zone. And Vitale generated these numbers while his fellow offensive teammates were dropping one by one with injuries.

Vitale should replicate his sophomore season in 2014. He again will be the third receiving option behind Northwestern’s outside receivers Christian and Tony Jones. Vitale will not be the playmaker either of the Joneses is, but he should a number of passes thrown at him between the hash marks and in the red zone. If anything, Vitale’s statistics will receive a boost. As noted in previous entries in this series of position rankings, Northwestern will ditch a hybrid offense for the passing spread now that Kain Colter has graduated and Trevor Siemian is the full-time quarterback. There will be more passes thrown in this system, which likely means more targets, receptions, and receiving yards for Vitale. Plus, unlike last year, Northwestern’s offense should be a full strength in terms of its health, which maximizes the unit’s potential. Although the most noticeable flaw in Vitale’s game is his blocking, which is no surprise given he needs to be smaller than most tight ends to have the versatility Northwestern desires for its superbacks, his talent as a receiver is sufficient to overcome it and put him in the top five of this list.

4. Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State | Senior – 6’5”, 255 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 26 466 4 17.9 57 33.3
2012 8 94 1 11.8 35 7.8
2011 1 25 0 25.0 25 2.5
Career Totals 35 585 5 16.7 57 16.3
(Joe Robbins, Getty Images)

(Joe Robbins, Getty Images)

Ohio State always has had talent at the tight end position. However, under Jim Tressel, tight ends were vastly underutilized as receivers. In the last five years of the Tressel era, the Buckeyes’ starting tight ends averaged only 13.4 receptions and 157.4 receiving yards per season. This is unsurprising when the tight end was the fourth or fifth option in the passing game, at best. Under Tressel, tight ends were not receivers, but glorified offensive linemen. They may have seen the field often because Tressel was keen on deploying power formations. But the tight end’s role was to block and block only, while the wide receivers garnered almost all of the targets.

This is no longer the case. When Urban Meyer took over, he realized the skill and potential the tight ends at Ohio State had as ball-catchers. Meyer did not let this go to waste and ensured these tight ends would be assets in the aerial attack. There is no better example than Jeff Heuerman’s first year as OSU’s starting tight end last season. His target rate—at 10.3 percent—may not have been large step above tight ends’ rates under Tressel, but Meyer made certain Heuerman would be a threat. Heuerman caught 72.2 percent of the passes thrown at him, hauling in 26 of them. The last Buckeyes tight end to catch that many balls in one season was Ben Harstock’s 33 receptions in 2003. It had been over a decade since a tight end had made the impact Heuerman did on Ohio State’s offense.

Unlike most Big Ten tight ends, Heuerman was a playmaker and a vertical threat. He averaged 17.92 yards per catch—the most by any Big Ten player with a minimum of 20 receptions—to total 466 receiving yards. Half of his receptions gained at least 15 yards, and eight gained no less than 25 yards. Further, three of Heuerman’s four touchdowns were outside the red zone, and two covered more than 40 yards. This is unheard of for a Big Ten tight end, especially at Ohio State. When people discuss the explosiveness of Meyer’s spread offense, usually, quarterback Braxton Miller, the running backs, or the wide receivers are mentioned. But it is about time that Heuerman became a part of that discussion.

There is little reason to think that Heuerman will not be just as much of a weapon this season as he was last season. Ohio State loses some key pieces offensively, but it should reload and have the offense humming in no time, especially with Miller returning for his senior year. Devin Smith is expected to replace Corey Brown, who caught 63 passes for 771 yards last year, as the No. 1 receiver. The question then is whether slot dot Dontre Wilson or Heuerman become the second option. If it is Heuerman, he could post the best numbers of any Big Ten tight end this season. But expect him to remain the third option as Wilson is promoted to the No. 2 spot. Heuerman should still post similar statistics to last season and be one of the best playmaking tight ends in the conference. Nonetheless, as the likely third option, Heuerman cannot jump ahead of the next three tight ends, who all will be the best receivers on their respective teams.

3. Jesse James, Penn State | Junior – 6’7”, 257 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 25 333 3 13.3 58 27.8
2012 15 276 5 18.4 42 25.1
Career Totals 40 609 8 15.2 58 18.4
(Joe Hermitt, The Patriot)

(Joe Hermitt, The Patriot)

It was mentioned in Part One, when discussing Adam Breneman, that no Big Ten school will rely more on its tight ends to produce this season than Penn State. The Nittany Lions have no known commodities at outside receiver after losing arguably the Big Ten’s best wideout in Allen Robinson and solid contributor Brandon Felder. There always is a chance that one of their young, inexperienced wideouts surprises as a legitimate No. 1 receiver, but the best odds are that the deep group of talented tight ends will have little choice but to pick up the slack.

While Breneman and Kyle Carter duke it out to be the backup tight end, there is little doubt that Jesse James will be the best of the bunch in 2014. James contributed as a freshman in 2012, posting 15 receptions for 276 yards and five scores—the second-most touchdown receptions on Penn State. However, he was overshadowed by Carter’s sensational season for which Carter was named a first-team freshman All-American. But Carter suffered a wrist injury near the end of the 2012 season and has not fully gotten back on track. This provided James the opportunity to assume the role as Penn State’s starting tight end in 2013. And he did not let it slip through his fingers.

Last season, James started all but one contest at tight end. Along the way, he earned the third-most targets on the roster with 39 passes thrown his way. But his target rate was only 10.1 percent because Robinson was a vacuum as the top receiver not only on Penn State, but in the conference. Nevertheless, James still caught 25 passes for 333 yards—the second-most on Penn State—and three touchdowns. His average of 13.32 yards per catch was one of the better averages among Big Ten tight ends, demonstrating he was more than a safety valve for quarterback Christian Hackenberg. What made James such a great target was that he was one of the tallest tight ends at 6’7”, flashed commendable speed, and had solid hands. These physical attributes, coupled with the opportunity to start, helped him turn in a fine 2013 campaign and allowed him to grab hold of the starting job entering next season.

Even though James had worse statistics across the board than Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman last season, James is above him on this list because, unlike Heuerman, he will be the top option for Hackenberg in the passing game. Hackenberg has the potential to be a starting NFL quarterback and will need quality targets to whom to throw to showcase his skills. James is the only returning receiver that had more than 20 receptions or 300 receiving yards last year. With so many questions about Penn State’s perimeter threats at receiver, James will be the best and most comfortable target Hackenberg has. Notwithstanding new head coach James Franklin’s refrain from involving tight ends in his passing attack at Vanderbilt, he will realize that he needs to get the football in the hands of his best players. For Penn State, it is James. Expect James’ targets and production to skyrocket next season accordingly, even as he shares snaps with Breneman and Carter.

2. Maxx Williams, Minnesota | RS Sophomore – 6’4”, 250 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 25 417 5 16.7 50 32.1
Career Totals 25 417 5 16.7 50 32.1
(Troy Taormina, USA Today Sports)

(Troy Taormina, USA Today Sports)

There are quality Big Ten tight ends littered throughout this list, but any debate about which one will be the best in the conference begins and ends with the following two candidates. One of those candidates is Minnesota’s Maxx Williams. Yet, if this conversation happened prior to last season, Williams’ name never would have been uttered. Arriving at Minnesota in 2012, Williams was an average three-star recruit that decided to commit to his home-state school. It was not as if he had much of a choice either as his only reported offer was from the Gophers. Williams proceeded to redshirt his first season at Minnesota. With little recruiting attention and no playing time prior to the 2013 season, Williams garnered no hype or expectations.

But Williams quickly became a critical component of Minnesota’s offense last season. He was one only two receiving threats with which opposing defenses concerned themselves—the other being wideout Derrick Engel. Williams had the second-most targets on the team and recorded a target rate of 15.7 percent. Despite not having the most balls thrown in his direction, Williams led Minnesota in receptions (25), receiving yards (417), and touchdowns catches (five). And he did this in just his first season on the gridiron. Williams was so productive as a redshirt freshman because of his explosiveness and playmaking ability. He averaged 16.68 yards per catch, which was the second among Big Ten tight ends behind only Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman. Additionally, Williams blocked well, too. In an offense that emphasized pounding the ball with both its quarterback and running back, Williams became an effective mauler on the line of scrimmage. By season’s end, he was named a third-team freshman All-American and demonstrated he was possibly the best tight end in the conference.

However, there is one red flag that prevents Williams from topping this list: Minnesota’s offensive system. The Gopher love to run the ball, run the ball, and run the ball some more. Last season, Minnesota had 586 rushes to 267 passes attempted. Less than one-third of Minnesota’s plays were runs. With Minnesota so focused on gaining yards on the ground, there were fewer chances for Williams to catch passes relative to other tight ends. And it does not appear Minnesota’s offensive philosophy will shift towards a more balanced attack. If anything, it will further shift the other way. Quarterback Philip Nelson transferred before he was dismissed from Rutgers, leaving Mitch Leidner as the full-time starter for 2014. However, Leidner’s best skill is his ability to run, while he struggles with his accuracy. If Leidner cannot prove that he can test defenses vertically with his arm, the Gophers will pound the rock even more with Leidner and running back David Cobb. It is too bad, too, because Williams very likely would have produced the best numbers for any tight end in the Big Ten as Minnesota’s clear-cut No. 1 receiver if given the amount of targets the next tight end on this list will see.

1. Tyler Kroft, Rutgers | RS Junior – 6’6”, 240 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 43 573 4 13.3 42 44.1
2012 3 59 1 19.7 42 5.4
Career Totals 46 632 5 13.7 42 26.3
(Matt Cashore, USA Today Sports)

(Matt Cashore, USA Today Sports)

Tyler Kroft did not play in the Big Ten last season, but, if he did, he would have been the best tight end in the conference. Not only did Kroft lead Rutgers in almost every receiving category last season, he would have topped most of these categories among Big Ten tight ends, too. Kroft was targeted 69 times. This would have been by far the best among Big Ten tight ends as the next closest was Wisconsin’s Jacob Pedersen with 58. However, Pedersen did edge out Kroft’s target rate of 17 percent with a 17.2-percent rate because Rutgers attempted more passes than Wisconsin. Nevertheless, Kroft’s 43 receptions and 573 receiving yards would have been first among Big Ten tight ends. And his four touchdown receptions were only two behind the best mark, which was held by Indiana’s Ted Bolser and Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz. No Big Ten tight end made more of an impact on his team’s offense than Kroft did.

Kroft should be able to further the gap between him and the rest of the Big Ten tight ends this season when he makes his Big Ten debut. Some of the tight ends that would have nipped at his heels in 2013—Pedersen, Bolser, and Fiedorowicz—graduated after last season. Others, like Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman, have the talent, but will not be the featured option, while some like Minnesota’s Maxx Williams will be the top receiver, but will be penalized by his team’s run-heavy offensive philosophy.

Kroft, though, seems to have all the puzzle pieces set in place in 2014. He has all of the physical tools to be an All-Big Ten tight end. He has a broad frame at 6’6” and 240 pounds that allows him to be an above-average blocker and a broad target for his quarterback, Gary Nova. His combination of size and speed helps him not only to be a safety valve for Nova near the line of scrimmage, but also to be a vertical threat in the passing game. Additionally, Rutgers will execute a balanced offensive attack that has about a 50-to-50 run-to-pass ratio. As the No. 1 target in Rutgers’ passing game, Kroft likely will have more balls thrown in his direction than any other Big Ten tight end. This is especially the case when the Scarlet Knights just lost their two best wide receivers in Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt to graduation. Rutgers will need Kroft to produce even more this season than last season. Given that Kroft would have been the Big Ten’s best tight end last year, it is safe to assume that Kroft will earn that honor in his Big Ten debut if Rutgers needs him to increase his numbers this year.

What do you think? Did we get the list right? Will Tyler Kroft distinguish himself from the rest of the Big Ten’s tight ends as the best of the pack? Or will another tight end be crowned as the conference’s best? Please let us know in the comments below. Next week, we will rank the last offensive position we have yet to tackle in this series: the offensive line.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Tight ends (part one)

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-TE

This is the fourth installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten football players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous seasons. The analysis provided is thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. I have already covered who will be the best Big Ten quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers. This week, I rank the last offensive skill position: tight end. Here is Part One:

Previously
Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two.
Running Backs: Part One, Part Two.
Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two.

10. Matt LaCosse, Illinois | Senior – 6’6”, 245 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 20 237 3 11.9 45 19.8
2012 3 32 0 10.7 12 2.9
2011 1 11 0 11.0 11 1.1
Career Totals 24 280 3 11.7 45 8.5
(Chris Howell, Herald-Times)

(Chris Howell, Herald-Times)

The Big Ten is a conference that has a longstanding reputation for playing football with a “three yards and a cloud of dust” mentality. It is a mentality that often involves multiple tight ends and jumbo formations. However, most of the Big Ten, like the rest of college football, is transitioning—or has transitioned already—away from this towards the spread offense, whether it is a read-option spread or a passing spread. These modern offenses want to spread out their fastest, nimblest, and best athletes and give them the ball in space to expose defenses.

Yet, most tight ends do not fit these criteria. When lined up adjacent to an offensive tackle, tight ends fail to spread out the defense horizontally, bringing more defenders inside the box. When they line up in the slot, most do not have the speed or athleticism to make plays in space, even if their size makes them desirable targets in the middle of the field. Accordingly, a residual effect of this offensive transition is the de-emphasis of the importance of most tight ends, and thus, makes filling out a top 10 of the best tight ends in the Big Ten a challenging exercise.

Nonetheless, the list will start with Illinois’ Matt LaCosse. LaCosse will be a senior in 2014 and should have his best season in what has been a relatively quiet collegiate career. LaCosse played in 33 games in his three seasons at Illinois, but did not become a factor in Illinois’ passing game until last year. And, even then, he was not much of a factor. LaCosse was targeted 29 times, recording a target rate of 6.7 percent. This was only the sixth-highest target rate on the roster. LaCosse did make the most of his opportunities, though. Although LaCosse was not explosive, and to be fair, most tight ends are not, he caught 20 passes for 237 yards, 11.85 yards per catch, and three touchdowns. It was a big step in the right direction for a tight end that had caught only four passes total the previous two seasons.

LaCosse should take another step in the right direction in 2014, although a breakout year should not be presumed. LaCosse should benefit from Wes Lunt taking the reins of Illinois’ offense at quarterback. Nathan Scheelhaase was more of a pocket passer than a dual threat, but Lunt better fits the mold of quarterback offensive coordinator Bill Cubit desires for his passing spread. This means airing it out even more. Consequently, LaCosse should be targeted more frequently this season than last, even if he still is splitting snaps with fellow senior tight end Jon Davis. The Fighting Illini lost their four most-productive wide receivers to graduation. The only returning Illinois player with more than 300 receiving yards last year is running back Josh Ferguson. There are question marks abound at wide receiver and very few answers for Illinois. Someone must replace that production. Even though tight ends rarely were featured in Cubit’s offenses at Western Michigan, LaCosse likely will have a more prominent role this season and should be one of Lunt’s favorite targets.

9. Adam Breneman, Penn State | Sophomore – 6’4”, 235 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 15 186 3 12.4 68 16.9
Career Totals 15 186 3 12.4 68 16.9
(John Beale, AP)

(John Beale, AP)

No Big Ten school will rely more on its tight ends to produce this season than Penn State. The Nittany Lions have no apparent perimeter threats at outside receiver. They said goodbye to arguably the best wide receiver in the Big Ten in Allen Robinson, who declared early for the NFL Draft after leading the conference in targets (150), receptions (97), and receiving yards (1,432). Wideout Brandon Felder departed, too, after recording 28 catches for 312 yards and three touchdowns his senior season. Unfortunately, for Penn State, there is very little experience remaining at wide receiver. No other Nittany Lion wide receiver had more than 20 catches or 250 receiving yards last year. There may be some talented freshmen waiting in the wings, but it seems unlikely they will make an immediate impact. However, Penn State has three very talented players returning at tight end and will need them to replace the production that Robinson and Felder provided.

Two of those tight ends will be competing for the second spot on the depth chart. Those players are Adam Breneman and Kyle Carter. Breneman was considered a top-50 prospect nationally and one of the two best tight ends in the 2013 class. He actually had loftier rankings until he suffered an ACL injury entering his senior season of high school. Nonetheless, Breneman was expected to recover and contribute as soon as he arrived on campus in State College. Although he had a slow start as a true freshman, he began to impress by the end of the year. Breneman caught a touchdown in each of his of final three contests and finished the season with 15 receptions for 186 yards.

On the other hand, Kyle Carter is a tight end that has proven more on the field despite much lower recruiting accolades. Carter was a generic three-star recruit when he signed his letter of intent with Penn State in 2012. Yet, as a true freshman, he was the second-best receiver on the team with 36 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns. For his efforts, Carter was a consensus first-team Freshman All-American and named to the All-Big Ten first team by the media. However, last season, Carter did not have quite the same impact. He posted only 18 catches for 222 yards and one touchdown. This was the result of a new quarterback under center in then-freshman Christian Hackenberg, the presence of Breneman, and the emergence of Jesse James—who will be discussed later.

Ultimately, both Breneman and Carter will see significant playing time this season. It is not as if the loser of this competition will be stuck to the bench all season, especially when Penn State may need its tight ends to compensate for its deficiency at wide receiver. So, while either Breneman or Carter could be No. 9 in these rankings, the edge goes to Breneman because of his potential. Although Carter has had better numbers, Breneman has the tools to be special. In his limited playing time last season, Breneman recorded a 78.9-percent catch rate while averaging 12.40 yards per catch. These are excellent numbers and a rare combination for a tight end. They suggest that Breneman is a tight end that either can make defenders miss after catching the ball near the line of scrimmage or has superb hands down the field. Additionally, Breneman seems to have better chemistry on the field with Hackenberg, which is no surprise when the two were roommates last year. Breneman is a solid bet to be one of the Big Ten’s best tight ends in 2015 and 2016. However, No. 9 is a good spot for him in 2014 when he will be Penn State’s second-string tight end and have his targets cannibalized by Carter and James.

8. Justin Sinz, Purdue | 5th-Yr Senior – 6’4”, 251 lbs.
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 41 340 4 8.3 28 28.3
2012 4 48 1 12.0 16 4.0
2011 3 25 0 8.3 9 2.1
2010 0 0 0 N/A N/A N/A
Career Totals 48 413 5 8.6 28 11.5
(247)

(247)

Purdue’s offense was an abomination last season. There were 123 college football teams in the FBS division last year. Yet, the Boilermakers were ranked in the bottom five nationally in scoring offense (No. 119), total offense (No. 119), and rushing offense (No. 122). There were very few positives to glean from Purdue’s offensive woes. One of them, though, was the production of its tight end, Justin Sinz.

Sinz was the safety valve for Purdue’s quarterback, whether it was for then-freshman Danny Etling or then-senior Rob Henry. Purdue’s quarterbacks struggled with their accuracy all season, completing a miserable 55.2 percent of their passes. Due to their inability to throw pinpoint passes to their wide receivers, Etling and Henry often would check down to Sinz near the line of scrimmage. Accordingly, Sinz had the second-most targets on the roster and the fourth-most among Big Ten tight ends with 55. Because most of these throws were check downs, Sinz caught a high percentage of them—74.5 percent to be exact. This allowed Sinz to lead the Boilermakers with 41 receptions last season, turning them into 340 yards and four touchdowns, and be one of the more productive tight ends in the Big Ten.

Notwithstanding his productivity in 2013, Sinz was the beneficiary of a broken offense more than anything else. Purdue could neither run the football nor throw it down the field. So one of the very few options the Boilermakers had to move the football was Sinz near the line of scrimmage. And, when Sinz did catch the football, he did very little with it. He averaged only 8.29 yards per catch, which was one of the lowest such averages among Big Ten tight ends. Further, only one of his 41 receptions gained 25 yards or more. The last term anyone would use to describe Sinz’s game is playmaker.

The best case scenario for Sinz in 2014 is that Etling, who received decent praise as a high-school recruit, makes a sophomore leap with the help of an offensive line that cannot be any worse than last year. If Etling is allowed more time in the pocket, Sinz may be able to get open down field and make more plays rather than acting solely as a safety valve near the line of scrimmage. However, there is very little reason to be optimistic about Purdue’s offense next season. The outlook is similarly dreadful to last year. This means Sinz could load up on receptions again even if little excitement happens after the catch. But Sinz may split snaps with senior tight end Gabe Holmes, who was the starter before missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury. Fewer targets in the same caliber offense? Sinz very likely may see a dip in his production in 2014.

7. Jake Butt, Michigan | Sophomore – 6’6”, 250 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 20 235 2 11.8 37 18.1
Career Totals 20 235 2 11.8 37 18.1
(MGoBlue.com)

(MGoBlue.com)

Next on the list is Michigan’s Jake Butt—a man with a last name that could not be more fitting for his position. Similar to Penn State’s Adam Breneman, Butt is a young tight end that has the tools and potential to be a special player down the road. In fact, it initially appeared that Butt would be able to fulfill much of this potential as a sophomore in 2014. As a true freshman last year, Butt’s playing time increased once Michigan shifted starting tight end Devin Funchess to wide receiver. Soon thereafter, Butt found his groove, catching 13 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns in the last five contests. His highlight of the season was against archrival Ohio State when he set career highs for receptions (five) and receiving yards (85) while adding a touchdown. It was the first glimpse of what could be a future All-Big Ten tight end. And there was some talk that Butt could do it this year with Funchess remaining on the perimeter and no other experienced receivers returning for Michigan.

However, an unfortunate and unlucky incident eliminated that talk swiftly. In February 2014, Butt tore his ACL while participating in conditioning drills. When the injury occurred, there was speculation about whether he would heal in time for this season like Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan did last year or would need to sit out for all of 2014. As of now, according to head coach Brady Hoke, all signs point to Butt making his return in late September or early October. The best guess would be that Butt would miss Michigan’s four non-conference contests and make his season debut on September 27, 2014, in the Wolverines’ Big Ten opener versus Minnesota.

While there are reports that Butt already is running and ahead of schedule in his rehab, there still are lots of questions about how effective Butt will be when he returns. Will Butt still have the same athleticism, agility, and strength in his leg to produce at a high level for Michigan? And, even if Butt’s knee is fully recovered, will he mentally have recovered from the injury? There are times when athletes are mentally conscious of their prior injury when they return, which prevents them from playing instinctively and causes them to play hesitant. The odds are that Butt will be fine, physically and mentally, when he suits up. Nevertheless, Butt still likely will play no more than nine games this season. It is difficult to rank a player high than No. 7 when it is known he will miss a portion of the season with a significant injury, even if he comes back stronger than ever.

6. Ray Hamilton, Iowa | Senior – 6’5”, 250 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 8 95 0 11.9 21 7.3
2012 2 20 0 10.0 20 1.8
2011 1 15 0 15.0 15 1.5
Career Totals 11 130 0 11.8 21 3.8
(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

Since Kirk Ferentz became Iowa’s head coach prior to the 1999 season, the Hawkeyes have had an influx of talent at tight end. There has been Dallas Clark, who was a consensus All-American and the John Mackey Award winner in 2003. There also has been Brandon Myers and Tony Moeaki, who were named to the All-Big Ten first team in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Then, there was Erik Jensen and Scott Chandler, who, in addition to the Clark, Myers, and Moeaki, were selected in the NFL Draft.

Unsurprisingly, Iowa has made tight ends a staple of its offense. Just look at C.J. Fiedorowicz last season. Fiedorowicz was an all-around tight end that not only was a solid blocker, but an above-average receiver. He earned the third-most targets on the roster with 44 and converted them into 30 receptions for 299 receiving yards and a team-high six touchdowns. Although Fiedorowicz was not an explosive tight end, which is not a trait common in many players stuck in offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ system, he was a beast near the end zone. All six of his touchdown receptions were in the red zone. For his performance, Fiedorowicz was handed All-Big Ten first-team honors and chosen in the NFL Draft.

Next on the list of Iowa tight ends under Ferentz to forward this legacy is senior Ray Hamilton. Despite being a four-star recruit that committed to Iowa over high-major programs, Hamilton was overshadowed the past three seasons by Fiedorowicz. While Fiedorowicz shined in the spotlight, Hamilton stuck to the dirty work in the trenches with his nasty blocking as Iowa’s backup tight end. Consequently, Hamilton was more of a sixth offensive lineman on the field than receiver. He caught only 11 passes for 130 yards in his first three seasons. But, with Fiedorowicz off to the NFL, it is finally time for Hamilton to demonstrate why he was so highly regarded in high school. Although his receiving skills may not be to the same standard as Fiedorowicz’s, as the starting tight end this season, Hamilton should be targeted much more frequently this season than he ever has. Further, there is strong potential for Hamilton to be a touchdown magnet in the red zone. All in all, Hamilton should be a key member of Iowa’s aerial attack, especially when the Hawkeyes do not have a standout wide receiver.

However, there is one wild card in this picture. His name is Jake Duzey. Unlike Hamilton, Duzey does not fit the mold of the traditional Iowa tight end. Duzey has shown more ability as a receiver, but struggles with the blocking element of the position. It remains to be seen just how much Iowa will try to utilize Duzey’s skill set this season. Duzey could be a dynamic threat in the passing game for the Hawkeyes, which would cut into Hamilton’s targets and relegate Hamilton back into a blocking tight end. But, in the past, Ferentz has shied away from relying on tight ends that cannot block because his offense emphasizes the power running game. This is even the case for his No. 2 tight end, which is used almost exclusively for blocking in Iowa’s scheme. Will Ferentz and Davis add some creativity to their offense to get Duzey more involved? Or will Duzey struggle to get on the field because he cannot block effectively? These are questions to keep an eye on as Iowa’s season progresses. But, either way, expect one of Hamilton or Duzey to make a sizeable contribution for the Hawkeyes this season, just like every other Iowa tight end before them.

What do you think so far? Do you agree with where the foregoing players have been ranked? What about Michigan’s Jake Butt? Do you believe he is ranked too high, too low, or just right? Who do you think will the best tight end in the Big Ten in 2014? Please let us know in the comments below because, tomorrow, we will reveal who will be the five top tight ends in the conference.

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

Newcomers

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