Go back and look at the look at a preseason projections for the Texas Longhorns at the tight end position every year since 2008 and only one season could possibly feature some positivity -- the belief that Blaine Irby could grow into an effective weapon replacing Jermichael Finley that first year in question. But even that took some serious projection, as Irby caught only two passes as a freshman in 2007 and played sparingly.
Every other year? 2009? Question mark. 2010? Question mark. 2011? Question mark.
Such is the reality entering the 2012 season as well -- that stupid, hated, curved punctuation mark. Get a backbone and become an exclamation mark. Now there's a real form of punctuation.
Besides the dastardly continued punctuated curvature, there are some signs of progress, some straightening of that spine -- a return to health for DJ Grant, who is moving as well as he has since his knee injury in 2009, but likely not as well he could be moving had the injury not occurred.
And there is reason for some optimism with redshirt freshman MJ McFarland.
In regards to the group most expected to contribute at H-back and tight end, Grant, McFarland, and sophomore Darius Terrell are all former high school receivers, so their pass-catching skills are not the weak link in their respective chains of interlocking skills.
Instead, it's the blocking for all three that limit their potential contributions to the 2012 offense.
And co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin can't afford to go out of his way to make things easy for the tight ends in the running game. Following last Sunday's scrimmage, Harsin commented on just how difficult it can be for tight ends in his scheme:
I thought those guys made some good plays and I thought the run game because of what we ask them to do on the edge makes it difficult because they are one-on-one. They don't get the opportunity for double teams like a lot of guys inside do, so they got to be great at their technique. We continue to do that all through spring and put those guys in situations of one-on-one blocks, but the guys we are going against makes it very hard. They got in a tremendous amount of work and today I thought they did a decent job.
One play early -- one of the first snaps for redshirt freshman tight end MJ McFarland -- illustrated the difficult positions in which Texas tight ends will find themselves in 2012:
MJ McFarland missed his 1st block vs. Alex Okafor in pass pro, but hustled back to give Ash a split second more time to deliver pass.— Wescott Eberts (@GhostofBigRoy) April 7, 2012
A bit more on the situation -- it was a play-action pass with Ash rolling to his left, the strongisde, meaning McFarland had to execute a one-on-one block against his all-conference teammate. He missed initially, but kept his motor running to chip Okafor enough to buy Ash the time and space to have a passing lane.
Let's play the zero-sum game on this one, shall we? Okafor with a +2 to putting pressure on the quarterback, -2 for McFarland to missing his initial one-on-one block that was crucial to Ash having time to throw while rolling to McFarland's size, +1 for McFarland hustling back into the play to give Okafor just enough of a chip, and, finally, a -1 for Okafor not impacting the pass after beating his blocker = the all-time spring sum of zero!
As if it wasn't already easy enough to talk oneself in a circle during (over)analysis.
But it all really goes back to what Harsin mentioned about the tough life of his tight ends:
Blocking Okafor w/out help difficult task for any TE. McFarland failed, but good to see effort level to recover enough to help his QB.— Wescott Eberts (@GhostofBigRoy) April 7, 2012
This was a situation that the coaching staff specifically wanted to see from McFarland, going against one of the best defensive ends he will face on an island. In looking at where NFL Draft Scout has Okafor as the top defensive end in the 2013 NFL Draft class, he may be the best McFarland will face. Yanno, until Jackson Jeffcoat comes back in the fall.
If a high level of competition depends a steep learning curve by threat of absolute annihilation, McFarland going against Okafor in those situations is a trial by fire.
Back the comments on effort though -- it's something that Harsin volunteered when he was asked about the El Paso product and former high school wide receiver:
He is a big physical guy, and he took advantage of his redshirt year. He got into the weight room. He studied, he learned, and he came out there. He had to physically get in there and do some of the things we asked him to do rep-wise. But he understood it, and he knew the mental side of it - not perfectly. But the way he changed his body and just getting himself prepared to be in that position he is in. I think he has been a nice surprise this spring as far as where he is at and the plays he has made. He is not perfect by any means, but he continues to come in with an attitude to improve and we appreciate that.
For former receivers, the change in attitude and aggressiveness necessarily to block collegiate defensive ends can be a difficult transition. So while this isn't intended as a shot at the current group, the fact of the matter is that it's difficult for most high school wide receivers to buy into blocking, it takes an attitude adjustment to accept fewer passes and blocking 260-pounders instead of the average 160-pound prep cornerback.
McFarland's pass-catching abilities alone provide sufficient cause to spark optimism, especially since his 6-6 frame simply makes for a bigger target compared to all the other smaller tight ends and H-backs currently on the roster.
As a blocker, the El Paso El Dorado product remains a work in progress, as evidenced by his inability to control Okafor at the line of scrimmage.
The positive is that a review of his two costly penalties reflects more favorably on him than the initial viewing. McFarland's first penalty came on a wide receiver screen pass he overextended getting to Leroy Scott and was only able to get a small and brief handful of his jersey:
Not much of a holding call on MJ McFarland on Shipley jet sweep. Tried to hold, but was only marginally effective at doing so.— Wescott Eberts (@GhostofBigRoy) April 7, 2012
A hold, however brief, is still a hold, but it's in the range that Bill Raftery would term it "small change" were he calling a college football game.
Still a poor play no matter the shine put to it, McFarland appeared to be the victim of rule changes intended to protect helpless players on another play with the sophomore safety:
The block by MJ McFarland peeling back on Leroy Scott was completely legal. Got under shoulder pad. Should not have been flagged.— Wescott Eberts (@GhostofBigRoy) April 7, 2012
Protecting the cognitive future of football players at all levels, but the NCAA is doing itself a disservice by not reviewing those type of penalties to ensure that game-changing flags aren't thrown with good intentions and little ultimate justification. Just. Get. It. Right.
Developing pet peeves aside, McFarland showed the expected and anticipated flashes in the passing game. His work up the seam beating Kendall Thompson was, in this author's opinion, the third-best play of the scrimmage:
MJ (via Derek Johnson)
The McCoy-McFarland connection on that play was, excepting trick plays and possibly the pass to Grant from McCoy against UCLA, the best vertical play a Texas tight end has made since Jermichael Finley in any game-like environment.
On the debit side, McFarland dropped another opportunity in traffic, so it wasn't a flawless game for his hands beyond the explosive play.
Assessing McFarland's potential 2012 impact requires a trip back to those comments from Harsin -- he's working with Bennie Wylie to improve his strength, he's becoming a student of the game with his preparation and work in the film room, and he's showing evidence of the necessary effort on the field and the expected translation of his receiving skills vertically in a game-like situation.
If McFarland currently is between 50% and 60% of his eventual upside, the effectiveness of the Texas offense could receive a significant bump from McFarland reaching three-quarters of his potential in 2012. It's a significant leap to expect for someone who hasn't even seen the field for a game and just went through a debut spring practice.
Make no mistake about this, however -- McFarland operating at the former numbers still represents an upgrade from 2011 when added to other potentially-improved players like DJ Grant and Darius Terrell.
Take away from all this the simple fact that McFarland, to a greater extent than any Texas tight end since Jermichael Finley, represents the potential run-bocking/seam-stretching answer. Even if he doesn't reach that potential, at least 2013 Belton tight end commit Durham Smythe is on his way with the advantage over McFarland that he actually played the position in high school.
But here's the deal, though, MJ -- just straighten that question mark into an exclamation point for 2013 tight end position projections, big fella.