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UT's Tight End Problem - Part 1: How We Got Here

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The tight end position has mostly been a series of injuries and recruiting misses by UT in recent years. Here's how we got there.

Blaine Irby's 2008 injury left a void at the tight end position from which UT still hasn't completely recovered.
Blaine Irby's 2008 injury left a void at the tight end position from which UT still hasn't completely recovered.
Darren Carroll

One of the constant storylines in recent years with regard to Texas' football recruiting and player development efforts -- or rather the failures thereof -- has been about the dearth of solid two-way players at the tight end position (not to mention the fact that many of their recent TEs could hardly be called "one-way" players). We're far removed from the days of David Thomas and Jermichael Finley attacking the middle of the field and extending drives with big catches.

Between Thomas' last season (2005) and Finley's two seasons in burnt orange (2006-2007), the two produced a combined 126 receptions. In an amusing but depressing bit of symmetry (assuming my math is right), since the start of the 2008 season, all Longhorn tight ends have combined for 126 catches, 53 of which went to the talented but injury-riddled pair of Blaine Irby and D.J. Grant.

The very first piece I wrote as a contributor to BON was a 3,200-word post in March of 2012 on the state's 2013 class of tight ends, and it re-capped the program's myriad issues with signing and developing players at that position in the years since Jermichael Finley's departure to the NFL. That post was written just days after Durham Smythe committed to the Longhorns, but the overall story hasn't changed much since then.

Smythe eventually de-committed and signed with Notre Dame, Mack Brown's staff steadfastly refused to offer recruitniks' favorite Christian Morgan in 2013, they have so far struck out on each and every high school tight end they've offered since then, and the only players at the position who were signed in the past two recruiting classes were both JUCO prospects: Geoff Swaim (2013) and Blake Whiteley (2014). Meanwhile, a pair of guys recruited to play other positions have been moved to tight end: Greg Daniels and Andrew Beck.

Swaim has been a solid blocker but hardly a difference maker as a receiver, and he'll be gone after this season, along with fellow senior Daniels, a former defensive end. Returning in 2015 will be M.J. McFarland, Blake Whiteley, and Andrew Beck.

McFarland has the size and skill to be a good receiver but he's played in 30 games and has a mere 16 career receptions to show for it, and he'll be a senior in 2015. Still, he has improved this season (while playing under his third offensive coordinator in as many years) and going into the Iowa State game he had the only two touchdown receptions in 2014 by Longhorns not named John Harris.

Beck was moved to TE just months after the team recruited him to play linebacker, and as a true freshman he has appeared in each game but has not recorded a catch. Blake Whiteley signed with UT after spending one year at the junior college level, and since he has yet to appear in a game this season he may be redshirting (he would be a redshirt sophomore next year if that's the case). Though he was a JUCO signee, Whiteley didn't come to UT with a great deal of experience or production at that level, as he played in eleven games during his lone season at Arizona Western and totaled eight catches.

So basically, the Longhorn tight ends group in 2015 already promises to resemble what the group has been over the past few seasons: a mix of junior college signees, guys who switched positions, and former highly-rated recruits who haven't met their potential. Into this mix Longhorn fans would love to see added an honest-to-goodness high-profile instant-impact player in the 2015 recruiting class.

Their options on that front aren't exactly numerous, as every tight end they've offered is currently committed elsewhere save Devonaire Clarington (Booker T. Washington - Miami, FL), a fine player for sure but one who is, A. a month or so from turning 19, and B. unanimously predicted by 247Sports' crystal ballers to sign with Miami (FL).

Dumas, Arkansas athlete Will Gragg, who committed to his home state Razorbacks last month, still plans to take an official visit to Texas in November, but it would be an upset at this point if he were to flip to the 'Horns.

UT recently extended an offer to Chris Clark (Avon Old Farms - Avon, CT), a consensus national top-5 tight end prospect who has been committed to Michigan since June and was previously committed to North Carolina. He reportedly plans to take official visits to at least Michigan, UNC, UT, and USC, and he holds some 40 offers besides those four. Interestingly, he has also been recently tweeting and re-tweeting positive things about TCU, who offered him on October 7.

It would be nice to see Texas sign a tight end in 2015 who could not only contribute but play well next fall. It would be even better for them to sign a player who can develop into a very good or great player in 2016-2018. Doing that requires keen evaluations, good projections, and a bit of luck, and recent history suggests that the tight ends from Texas who have the best college careers or are good enough to reach the pro level are often not the ones who are rated highest as high school seniors.

Jermichael Finley, the last Longhorn tight end to be drafted by the NFL, signed his letter of intent in February 2005. Children born that month are in the 4th grade now. In the six years since Finley and Texas A&M's Martellus Bennett were taken early in the 2008 NFL Draft, there have been -- by my count -- eleven Texas high school products who NFL teams have drafted to play tight end. Only two of the eleven got four-star grades from Rivals while in high school: Jace Amaro (San Antonio MacArthur/Texas Tech), a 2011 recruit who was drafted in the 2nd round earlier this year, and James Hanna (Flower Mound/Oklahoma), a highly-rated 2008 recruit who the Dallas Cowboys took in the 6th round in 2012.

Others reached the NFL after college careers begun with far less fanfare. Vance McDonald (Rice), whose father Bret was a linebacker at UT from 1979 to 1981 (though he never lettered), didn't even have a Rivals profile when he came to Rice from East Chambers High School in 2008, and Scout (which did have a profile for him) ranked him as that class's 160th-best tight end, but he worked his way into becoming a 2nd round pick in 2013.

Crockett Gillmore went to Colorado State as a Rivals three-star prospect from Class 2A Bushland in 2010, and neither Rivals nor Scout rated him as one of the class's 40 best tight ends, but he was the seventh tight end selected in the 2014 draft (he went off the board 50 picks after Jace Amaro).

Rob Housler was an unheralded two-star recruit when he left Converse Judson for Florida Atlantic in 2006. No fewer than 21 in-state tight ends received higher grades from Rivals that year than did Housler (the two highest-rated ones, Jason Fox and Britt Mitchell, both ended their college careers playing offensive tackle). But at the 2011 NFL Draft, he was taken in the 3rd round and was the third tight end selected overall.

Three Texan tight ends were drafted in 2012: Michael Egnew (Plainview/Missouri) in the 3rd round, Taylor Thompson (Prosper/SMU) in the 5th round, and the aforementioned James Hanna in the 6th round, though their Rivals grades coming out of high school suggested their eventual draft order would be the opposite. All three were recruited from the class of 2008; Hanna was a four-star recruit and the 11th rated tight end overall, Thompson was a three-star rated 38th overall, and Egnew was graded as a two-star wide receiver.

The 2009 NFL Draft class also included three Texas tight ends, none of whom were highly rated coming out of high school.

Brandon Pettigrew (Tyler Lee/Oklahoma State) was the 20th overall pick in the entire draft, despite beginning his college career as a low-rated two-star recruit in 2004. Pettigrew wasn't even among the top ten TE recruits in the state, according to Rivals, though it should be noted that Scout gave him a three-star grade and ranked him as the #13 TE prospect nationally.

Anthony Hill, a 4th-round pick in 2009, spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy after graduating from Clear Brook High School in Friendswood, and signed with North Carolina State as a two-star prep school offensive tackle prospect in 2004.

And James Casey, who was graded as a two-star quarterback as a senior at Azle in 2003, played minor league baseball for a few years before going to Rice and giving football another shot. In two seasons at Rice he earned All-American honors and broke a few NCAA records for tight ends, then was drafted in the 5th round in 2009.

Also taking the scenic route to the NFL was basketball-star-turned-tight end Fendi Onobun, who was a four-star power forward as a senior at Alief Taylor and signed with Arizona in 2005. After playing four years at Arizona he decided to take up football and played one season for his hometown Houston Cougars. The St. Louis Rams drafted the 6'5.5" 252-pound Onobun in the 6th round in 2010 after he ran a 4.48-second forty yard dash, recorded a 37" vertical jump, and showed off a 11'1" broad jump at Houston's Pro Day. The Rams waived him a year later and he has since spent time with six different NFL teams.

That's eleven tight ends from the state of Texas drafted by the NFL in the last six years, only two of whom were four-star recruits (at least for football), and six of whom didn't even receive three-star grades from Rivals (not counting Onobun, who was a four-star basketball recruit).

Long story short (too late!), the state has produced plenty of NFL-level tight end talent in the past decade, but the state's major programs (UT, A&M, TCU, and Baylor, to name four) haven't been the ones developing them and sending them to the pros.

UT's tight ends have been more than a little snake-bitten by injuries over the last six years (Blaine Irby being the most prominent example), but has the position been hindered more by bad evaluations by the staff or a lack of development from the recruits signed to play it?

Bruce Chambers, who has coached Longhorn tight ends since 2003, has taken much of the criticism for the lack of production from his charges in the post-Jermichael Finley years, but how much of a role he has played in evaluating tight end prospects and deciding on offers is up for debate, and one can't dismiss the fact that David Thomas's 50-catch 2005 season (he had 14 more receptions than anyone else on the national championship team) and Finley's 45-catch season in 2007 both happened on Chambers's watch at TEs coach. And fans will forever be left to wonder what Irby would have become had he not suffered that catastrophic knee injury versus Rice in 2008.

We know Michael Egnew, Rob Housler, and Longhorn legacy Vance McDonald were good enough athletes to make it into the NFL because, well, they actually made it into the NFL. But would all (or any) of them have developed into pro tight ends if they had spent 4-5 years with Bruce Chambers as their position coach and Jeff Madden as their strength and conditioning coach?

We'll never know, but given that injuries, inconsistency, and lack of development resulted in three-star recruits Josh Marshall, Trey Graham, Ahmard Howard, Ian Harris, Barrett Matthews, and Greg Smith combining for 31 career receptions, it's fair to ask if even highly-rated recruits like James Hanna or Jace Amaro would have made it to the NFL had they signed with Texas.

Or, going the other direction, one wonders if Greg Smith might have made an NFL roster as a draftee rather than a lowly undrafted free agent/practice squad player if he had instead attended a tight end factory like Missouri or Rice, as his performance at UT's 2011 Pro Day made clear that the paucity of his offensive production couldn't be blamed on a lack of athleticism.

Whatever Bruce Chambers's merits and shortcomings may be, Charlie Strong has had a full nine months to work with and observe him, and I'm confident that if he doesn't believe Chambers is the right coach to develop UT's tight ends, he'll replace him after this season. Until then, the staff needs to be as thorough as possible and get their evaluations right for the class of 2015, and hope to land someone, anyone, who can help the program and pull the tight end position out of the pit of despair that it's been stuck in for so long.

There are very few available recruits who could potentially be this class's Jermichael Finley or Jace Amaro, blue chip recruits who played up to their billing and had solid-to-great college careers. But there are a number of candidates in the ranks of the relatively unheralded athletes who might just be this class's Vance McDonald, Michael Egnew, Rob Housler, or even Brandon Pettigrew.

I'll share some of those names in part two.