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UT's Tight End Problem - Part 2: 2015 In-State Recruiting

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Taking a look at some in-state tight end prospects who Texas could pursue if they miss out on their top targets at the position for the 2015 class.

Will Gragg is committed to Arkansas but plans to visit Texas next month.
Will Gragg is committed to Arkansas but plans to visit Texas next month.
Wescott Eberts (SB Nation)

Back on October 23rd in Part 1 of this series, I re-capped some of Texas's failures and misfortunes in its recruiting and development of tight ends over the past seven years. For Part 2, I'll make a partial attempt to answer the headline question in Wescott's piece from September 24th: "After missing on Will Gragg at TE, where will Texas turn in 2015?"

The circumstances have changed quite a bit since then, so at this point the question is more like, "Where will Texas turn if they miss on Devonaire Clarington and Chris Clark, and Will Gragg stays committed to Arkansas?" Two of the potential recruits Wescott offered in September were Hunter Herndon (North Forney) and Hunter Thedford (Comanche), who have both long been on UT's radar.

Thedford has some skills, a great frame for the position (6'7" 230 lbs.), and committed to UTEP in early November, but I highly doubt he'll be getting a Texas offer.

Herndon (6'4" 236 lbs.) is a bit harder to evaluate because he plays quarterback for his team, which hasn't been very good during his two years as its signal-caller. North Forney went 3-7 in 2013 and had several blowout losses on the way to a 1-9 record this fall. Herndon committed to Rice in March and has held an Oklahoma offer since August. Those two schools both have better recent track records than does UT when it comes to developing tight ends, but based on published interviews Herndon seems to be a solid commit to the Owls, and I tend to think there are comparable or better options available to Texas.

I spent a good chunk of Part 1 pointing out that of the eleven Texas high school products who were taken in the last six NFL drafts as tight ends, only two were four-star football prospects as high school seniors (another was a four-star power forward in basketball who switched to football at the end of his college career). This year's senior class has a handful of prospects who could very well be the next Michael Egnew (Plainview/Missouri), Rob Housler (Converse Judson/Florida Atlantic), Crockett Gillmore (Bushland/Colorado State), or Vance McDonald (Winnie East Chambers/Rice), all of whom were two- or three-star recruits who were later selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. I'll run through a few of those names at the end of this piece.

At the moment, Texas is in pursuit of three highly-rated tight end prospects from out of state, two of whom are committed to other schools, and the third has long been seen as a Miami lock.

Four-star Miami athlete Devonaire Clarington took an official visit to Texas this weekend and attended the West Virginia game. Clarington, who some schools are recruiting as a defensive end, is uncommitted, but all twenty-four of 247Sports's Crystal Ball projections made for Clarington over the past 15 months predict that he'll sign with the Miami Hurricanes. It would be a surprise if he ended up a Longhorn, but getting him on campus definitely helped UT's chances, and he reportedly had good things to say about his visit. He is set to attend this weekend's Florida State-Miami game, and according to a CaneSport story ($) he plans to announce his commitment at the U.S. Army All-American game on January 3, 2015.

Will Gragg (Dumas, AR) committed to his home state Arkansas Razorbacks in September but reportedly plans to visit Texas in December. No analyst I've read seriously believes Gragg will end up anywhere other than Fayetteville, though.

Which leaves Chris Clark (Avon Old Farms - Avon, CT) as the outstanding Texas tight end offer seemingly most likely to end up a Longhorn. Clark - who, like Clarington, is a consensus top-five national tight end prospect and is already 19 years old - wasn't even known to be on UT's radar at the time of Wescott's September 24th article, as his name was first publicly connected with Texas in early October, and he was offered shortly afterward. He has been committed to Michigan since June, but has been publicly re-considering his options with the Wolverines slumping to a 5-5 record (they'll have to beat either 6-3 Maryland or 8-1 Ohio State to become bowl-eligible) and head coach Brady Hoke on the hottest of hot seats. Clark has said that he will probably not sign with Michigan if Hoke is fired. He plans to visit Texas on December 6th.

Clark is a big fan of Charlie Strong and the Longhorn football program, but it's far from a given that they'll be the recipients of his Letter of Intent in February, and Texas fans know by now not to get their hopes up when it comes to flirtations with highly-rated tight end recruits (see: Austin Sefarian-Jenkins and Christo Kourtzidis).

In the comments section of Part 1, somebody asked a question about how the tight ends played at Louisville during the Charlie Strong/Shawn Watson years there. We can see the stats measuring their on-field production easily enough, but there isn't much data from which we can analyze Charlie Strong's history of developing tight ends within his team's offenses.

Strong became Louisville's head coach in December of 2009, and no tight ends were signed in UL's 2010 or 2011 classes. Louisville signed two tight end recruits in 2012, Hunter Bowles and JUCO Ryan Hubbell, and added a third in Florida transfer Gerald Christian. Bowles never recorded a catch for the Cardinals and is no longer on the roster. Hubbell caught 14 passes in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Christian sat out the 2012 season, then in 2013 he caught 28 passes for 426 yards and 4 TDs, and this season under new head coach Bobby Petrino, he has 27 receptions for 301 yards and 4 TDs.

In all, over two-thirds of the receptions by Louisville tight ends during Charlie Strong's tenure were made by players he inherited from prior head coach Steve Kragthorpe. Cameron Graham, then a senior, caught 40 passes for 470 yards and was named an All-Big East first team tight end in 2010, Strong's first year in Louisville. In 2011, senior tight end Josh Chichester caught 28 passes for 393 yards and made All-Big East third team. So Strong had some talent at the position to work with when he started that job, but only one tight end Louisville recruited and signed out of high school during his time there has caught a pass in his career up to now.

While the jury is out on whether or not Charlie Strong's system can develop NFL-caliber tight ends, the stats tell us conclusively that Strong's Louisville offenses targeted their tight ends much more than Mack Brown's last four Texas offenses did. The 175 passes caught by Louisville tight ends during the Charlie Strong era (2010 to 2013) almost doubles the number produced by Longhorn tight ends during those same years (88). The total number of pass attempts the two schools had during those four years was nearly identical (1,639 for Louisville, 1,633 for Texas), but it should probably be factored in that the Cardinals had Teddy Bridgewater at QB for the vast majority of those attempts, while over 62% of the Longhorns' pass attempts in that same period came from the arms of the much-maligned Garrett Gilbert and Case McCoy. Clear advantage: Louisville.

This season, Longhorn tight ends M.J. McFarland and Geoff Swaim have combined for 20 catches that netted a paltry 119 yards (6 yards per catch), which isn't encouraging. But then again, the 136 passes completed to anyone other than senior receiver John Harris in 2014 have gained an average of 8.7 yards, so the tight ends are hardly alone when it comes to not making big plays downfield.

Those numbers should improve as Tyrone Swoopes continues to mature, the other players become more used to the Shawn Watson/Joe Wickline offensive scheme, and as the talent level across the board is upgraded from where the suspensions and dismissals from earlier in the year have left it.

Which leads us back to recruiting. While the dream scenario there regarding the tight end position is for UT to land any two out of Will Gragg, Devonaire Clarington, and Chris Clark, signing just one would be cause for celebration. Missing out on all of them would be a huge disappointment, but not an outright disaster.

Here are a few in-state high school tight end prospects who Texas may look to as either a back-up plan in case they don't sign any of the above-mentioned three, or who could be possible additions to the 2015 class to develop alongside one of those three and give the roster more overall depth at the tight end position, which could have the bonus side-effect of enabling Andrew Beck to move back to middle linebacker, a position that will need help with starter Steve Edmond graduating after this season.

Tyler Kelly (Fort Worth Arlington Heights)

He has one of the best skill sets and most college-ready bodies of all the state's uncommitted tight ends. The 6'5" 242-pound senior lines up both attached and out wide, and has the speed to be a dangerous receiver at the high school level and the size, aggressiveness, and awareness to be an effective blocker at both the line of scrimmage and in the secondary on pass plays. As a junior, he grabbed 21 receptions for 283 yards (he was 2nd on his team in both categories) and 3 touchdowns. This season his catches have been less frequent but he's been more productive with them; in the just-concluded regular season he totaled 16 receptions for 291 yards (18.2 yards/catch) and 6 TDs. His efforts have helped Arlington Heights achieve an undefeated 10-0 record as they enter the 5A Division I playoffs, and they have outscored opponents by nearly 42 points per game.

Arlington Heights head coach Phil Young names Iowa State, Kansas State, and North Texas among the FBS teams that have shown interest in Kelly, and the list of interested FCS teams includes Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin, and Liberty, the lattermost of which is led by former Buffalo and Kansas head coach Turner Gill, who happens to be an Arlington Heights alum. Texas has also shown recent interest in Kelly. According to Coach Young, UT stopped by in early October and Kelly has since attended a game. He may well end up being UT's top in-state option in case they are unable to land Clark, Clarington, or Gragg. Kelly also plays basketball, and as a junior he was named to district 7-4A's all-district second team.

Connor Hobbs (Tyler Bishop Thomas K. Gorman)

He has been among the most productive pass-catchers in the private school leagues over the past two years, and one of the best receivers in east Texas at any level. Standing just under 6'5" and 220 pounds, he's got a frame that should be able to add good weight to play tight end in college. The concern with him is that he plays at a very low level of competition (TAPPS Division II) and has lined up mainly at outside receiver, though his 2014 highlights show him playing a few snaps at H-back and in-line tight end. He'll have a steeper development curve than most other potential recruits will, but he's got a good combination of size and raw ability, and if he can maintain most of his speed and run routes effectively at 240 pounds or more, he'll be a very good player in a few years. Through ten games this season Hobbs has 74 receptions for 1,145 yards and 7 TDs. As of this week he is still waiting on his first offer.

Jess Trussell (Arlington Martin) - committed to Central Florida

As a junior he caught only 2 passes, but started to get some recruiting interest during spring practice earlier this year. He committed to Central Florida in August over offers from Air Force, Louisiana-Monroe, Toledo, and Utah State, and though his Rivals profile lists Texas as one of the schools from which he has received interest, it isn't known how serious or how recent that interest may have been. Martin coach Bob Wager says calling Trussell "under the radar is an understatement."

Trussell finished the regular season third on his team in receptions (18), second in receiving yards (383), and tied for the lead in touchdowns (4). He really stands out on Martin's line, checking in at 6'5" and 220 pounds, and he should have loads of snaps on film showing his blocking abilities, as Martin is known for its hurry-to-the-line-and-quick-snap offense that employs multiple formations but emphasizes the run. I witnessed one of Trussel's four TDs on the season (a nice 23-yard grab in the end zone on a seam route) when I took in part of Martin's 67-20 trouncing of cross-town rival Lamar on September 26th. He caught two TDs that night (I didn't see the first) and also blocked pretty well, and looked like a guy who will be an impact tight end at the D1 level in a few years. You can watch his Hudl highlights here.
Note: his older brother Connor Trussell is an offensive lineman at North Texas.

UPDATE: Since this article's original publication I've been told that Texas tight ends coach Bruce Chambers had some contact with Trussell over the summer and liked him enough that he attended a Martin game early this season, "but [Chambers] has been very quiet since." Trussell is very young for his class and only turned 17 in July, so he's at least 21 months younger than both Chris Clark and Devonaire Clarington. Don't be surprised if some teams in P5 conferences (maybe even UT) make a late run at him, especially after the dust settles on the Clark/Clarington sweepstakes..

Erik Beilman (San Antonio Brandeis)

He has flown even more under the radar than Trussell, and probably for much the same reason. He has great size for a tight end at 6'5" and 230 pounds, plays for one of San Antonio's best football programs, has been on his school's varsity team since his sophomore year, and is an excellent blocker (try naming five tight ends in the state who block better than him). But his team's offense only passes the ball on roughly 30 percent of its plays, and so Beilman has spent most of his playing time being used as an extra blocking surface and rarely being targeted as a receiver. His combined stats for the 2012 and 2013 seasons (in which, it should be noted, Brandeis played a total of 26 games): 8 receptions for 93 yards and 2 touchdowns. He had a mere 3 catches for 18 yards in his first six games of 2014, then showed out in a big way against San Antonio Marshall on October 17th by catching 5 passes for 96 yards, a performance that included catches up the seam, on an out route off play action, and on a curl. He ended the regular season with 10 receptions for 147 yards and 1 touchdown. At present, he says he has five offers and interest from a number of D1 schools. It will help his cause if Brandeis has another good multiple-round playoff run, and he may find himself targeted more to make defenses shift some of their attention away from wide receiver Peyton Hall, a UTSA commit.

Ryan Deshotel (Pearland)

He plays in a much more balanced offense than does Beilman or Trussell, but he still doesn't catch a lot of passes. According to the Houston Chronicle's stats, Deshotel caught 11 passes for 225 yards and 3 touchdowns during the regular season. Listed at 6'4" 235 lbs., he has lined up as an in-line tight end, H-back, and slot receiver. He's a good blocker no matter where he lines up, and he reminds me a bit of 2014 TE Logan Lister (Katy), who is now a freshman at Rutgers. He has decent speed and is a good enough receiver to keep defenses honest and to make him a good weapon off of play action, but he's closer to Geoff Swaim than M.J. McFarland as a receiver.
See Hudl highlights here.

Steven De Luna (Edinburg Vela)

Listed as 6'2" 220 pounds on his Hudl profile, he both looks and plays bigger than that. Whether he's at tight end or H-back, he displays a real mean streak when asked to block, and in his highlights he is shown making a few difficult catches as well. His Hudl page contains no senior year clips, and stats can be hard to come by for teams in far south Texas, but De Luna seems to have caught at least 24 passes for 272 yards and 3 touchdowns during the 2014 season.

Based on his highlights (which may be from just his junior and sophomore years) he appears to have better speed than Deshotel or Beilman, though he doesn't have the frame of either of those two. I think he could hold another 20 pounds while still being an effective player. He's raw and hasn't played against the same level of competition that most of the other guys on this list have faced, but give him a few years at the college level and he could be a solid player. He's very under-the-radar right now, and I do not know what, if any, schools are interested in him, but he seems to have interest in a certain school in Austin, as until recently the header photo on his Twitter page was a shot of the stands at DKR-Memorial Stadium.

Duncan McVey (Deer Park)

Perhaps the most under-the-radar name on this list, and another big guy with receiving skills playing in a run-heavy offense. According to the Houston Chronicle's statistics, Deer Park ran the ball roughly three times as often as they passed it during the regular season, and McVey was the team's second-leading receiver with 12 catches for 237 yards and one touchdown. As a junior he caught 7 passes for 107 yards. He's 6'4" 220 and appears to have a good understanding of the game, along with a good pair of hands and a mean streak when blocking. His senior year clips on Hudl run for a combined total of around 3:30, so he doesn't have a great deal of public film highlights and I'm not sure how high to rate him yet, but he's definitely a player colleges in need of tight end help should check on.

His older brother Payden McVey is a senior tight end at Lamar University, and has caught 60 passes while starting games in each of his four seasons in that program. Lamar is one of the few programs recruiting Duncan, but he has no offers yet and says none of the interest he has so far received has been from the FBS level.

Those are just a few senior tight ends who could potentially be of interest to Texas or other major in-state programs, and ones who aren't highly-rated but may have a bright future. There are many similarly-talented athletes in the other 49 states though, and since the UT staff has ventured outside of the state's borders to recruit its top tight end targets, there's always the possibility that their Plan B options at the position could include lesser-known prospects from out-of-state. I've watched some film on several uncommitted out-of-state tight ends recently, and If no tight ends commit to UT in the next week or so, I'll share the names of some interesting OOS prospects in a Part 3 post.