The Texas Longhorns secured the commitment of highly-rated Florida tight end prospect Devonaire Clarington just as the new year began, then shortly afterward senior-to-be M.J. McFarland announced that he would transfer to another school for his final season of eligibility.
The bad news: McFarland's departure leaves UT set to begin spring practices without a single tight end on the roster who has caught a pass in a college football game. The good news: Clarington, who will turn 20 early in the 2015 season, has the potential to be the best receiving threat at tight end the Longhorns have had since Jermichael Finley, and
finessin fellow 2015 signee DeAndre McNeal flashed a lot of big-play ability as a wide receiver in high school and could be a big piece toward putting back together the program's tight end/H-back puzzle in the coming years.
It's too early to tell how big of a need tight ends will be for UT's 2016 recruiting class, though the staff will probably look to add at least one.
It's been nearly four months since I started a series of posts on tight end recruiting, and after spending three posts on the recent history of tight end recruiting in Texas, plus looking at several under-the-radar 2015 recruits from in and out-of-state, looking ahead at the 2016 and 2017 crops at the position is an appropriate way to end the series. And since I've already written long posts about Texas high school tight ends in the classes of 2013, 2014, and 2015, I might as well save time and knock out a post on the 2016s now so I don't have to write about them this fall. I'll get to the 2017 group in my next post.
The prize of the 2016 tight end class
Kaden Smith (Flower Mound Marcus)
Already the owner of at least 15 reported offers, Smith is currently a consensus four-star prospect and the nation's 2nd-highest rated tight end in the 2016 class, according to 247Sports's composite rankings. He might just be the best tight end prospect the state has produced since Martellus Bennett, who was a five-star recruit in the 2005 class. He already has great size, standing in at 6'5" and approximately 235 pounds, and he's one of the younger members in his class, as he won't turn 17 until later this spring. He has the size, hands, speed, athleticism, and strength to line up just about anywhere in the formation. Perhaps a credible argument could be made for another tight end in the class having a higher ceiling, but Smith has by far the highest floor, and if he reaches his potential we could be looking at Jason Witten 2.0.
Texas is among the programs that has offered Smith, and he had good things to say about the Longhorn program and head coach Charlie Strong when he talked to Rivals in early January, and at the time he named UT as one of five schools that stood out the most for him, along with Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, and Stanford.
The other likely four-star
Donte Coleman (West Mesquite)
When I originally wrote up the section on Donte Coleman I put him in his own category called "2016 prospect who could blow up in a few months", but since writing the draft in which I dubbed him as such he has received offers from Iowa, Boise State, California, Arizona State, Texas Tech, and Rice. [2/24 Update: Since this article was posted, Coleman has added offers from TCU, Kansas, Nebraska, and Washington.]
He's been one of the 2016 class's fastest risers in recent weeks, at any position. I hadn't heard of Coleman until I was told about him in late December by a friend in the scouting industry who said he thought Coleman had "All-World" potential. Until recently, most of Coleman's online recruit profiles listed him as a wide receiver, but his future is at tight end. At 6'4" and 215 pounds, he already has good size for that position. West Mesquite head coach Jeff Neill believes he has the frame to carry much more good weight, and he has already worked to add some during the offseason. "The sky's the limit for what he will become in the coming months", Neill told me in January, two weeks before Coleman received his first offer.
As a junior he caught 18 passes for 234 yards and 4 touchdowns, playing mostly as an inside receiver early on, but more at tight end in the latter half of the season. He shows good speed and the potential to be a very good route-runner. As a blocker, his junior highlights show him blocking defensive backs and linebackers more often than him taking on defensive ends one-on-one, but he doesn't so much block inside linebackers as explode into them when they don't have their head on a swivel. By the time he has filled out he should be much stronger and more physically prepared to take on college linemen and linebackers at the point of attack, and he already shows the requisite aggressiveness to excel in that area.
With West Mesquite graduating four-year starting QB Chason Virgil (Fresno State), its top two running backs, and three of its top four receivers from the 2014 season, Coleman should have a much heavier role in the offense during his senior year. With blue-chip 2016 WR Dee Anderson (an LSU commit who Texas offered last week) making plays on the outside and Coleman moving into a tight end/H-back role and serving as a weapon in the middle of the field and off play action, West Mesquite's offense should be fun to watch in 2015.
The rest of the 2016 tight end headliners
J.C. Chalk (Argyle) - committed to Clemson
A consensus three-star prospect and a grandson of former Texas A&M and Alabama head coach Gene Stallings, Chalk was a key part of the offensive attack for an Argyle team that advanced to the Class 4A Division I state championship in December before losing in double-overtime to Navasota. Chalk was the team's second-leading receiver with 34 catches for 460 yards and 7 TDs. At 6'3" and about 220 pounds, he has good size to go with a mean streak when fulfilling blocking duties. If his highlights are any indication, he lined up mostly as an H-back or attached tight end and occasionally in the slot this past season. He shows good hands and the ability to be a threat downfield and up the seam, though most of the catches seen on his highlight clips come on short out routes and/or off play-action. He looks like an ideal H-back to me, with size similar to current Longhorn Andrew Beck.
Chalk committed to Clemson eight months ago, picking the Tigers (whose head coach, Dabo Swinney, played for Stallings at Alabama) over offers from Arizona State, Ole Miss and Texas Tech, among others. Oklahoma State and SMU have also issued offers in recent weeks, and other schools will no doubt continue to pursue him between now and next year's signing day.
Zarrian Holcombe (Humble Summer Creek)
At 6'5" and 200-215 pounds, he's cut from a similar cloth as tall receivers like Donta Thompson (Ennis/Texas Tech signee) and Rashad Still (El Paso Andress/Minnesota signee), but Holcombe appears more likely to spend his college career at tight end than either of those two. He was named a first team all-district tight end, but also got several snaps lining up in the slot. As a receiver, he's already a size and speed mismatch with most linebackers and a lot of high school safeties, and he's a good route-runner who could be a very good one in a few years. His Hudl doesn't give much evidence of his blocking prowess; he bends well and appears to block well on the perimeter but he'll need to get a lot stronger to set the edge against Division I defensive ends. He has a big frame though and should have plenty of room to add good weight, and I expect he'll be decent-to-very good in all areas once he has filled out. Holcombe reportedly holds offers from California, Houston, Illinois, Missouri, Purdue, and Washington.
Corey Rau (Katy Cinco Ranch)
Commonly listed at 6'4" and 228-238 pounds, Rau appears to be the next guy off the recent assembly line of burly Houston-area tight ends like 2014 recruit Logan Lister (Katy / Rutgers) and 2015 signees Ryan Deshotel (Pearland / Houston) and Jackson Solbeck (Cypress Ranch / New Mexico State). In his junior highlights, Rau lines up mostly as an in-line tight end, with occasional appearances in the slot. He appears to be a solid run blocker and his video shows several plays where he makes a key block to clear a lane for his running back to make a long run. As a receiver, he looks more athletic than Deshotel and may be a better route-runner than Lister. He was Cinco Ranch's third-leading receiver in 2014 with 18 catches for 300 yards and 4 touchdowns. Those numbers should increase in 2015, as his team apparently will have graduated every other player who caught more than three passes last season.
Looking at the list of 2015 tight ends in Texas who just signed with FBS schools, there are a handful who I'd take Rau over right now. He doesn't have a Rivals profile yet and there's little info to be found on his 247Sports profile, but I expect much more will be written about him in the coming year.
Other 2016 tight ends who could get D1 offers
Mason Sikes (Lumberton)
You'll find him listed mostly between 6'3" and 6'4" and 220-230 pounds. On film he looks like a tall kid with pretty good speed and a lot of room to fill out. You don't see too many players his size score TDs on kickoff returns, but that's what he does in the very first clip of his junior highlights. Other clips show him to be a big receiving target attacking the deep middle of the field who has some ability to make plays after the catch, and he looks like a player who could be lined up at multiple spots in the formation. The Beaumont Enterprise's stats page for Lumberton credited Sikes with 9 receptions for 188 yards and one TD for the 2014 season. Less impressive is his blocking, as he'll overpower an opponent on one play, but get too high out of his stance and let an opposing lineman get his hands into his body too easily on the next play. It's safe to call him a work in progress in that area, but with some refinement and physical development he could turn that area of his game into a strength down the road.
Will Phillips (Franklin)
He's a small school athlete who plays both ways, as an inside linebacker on defense and mostly as a halfback in Franklin's wing-T offense. Listed at 6'3" and about 230 pounds, Phillips was named co-Defensive MVP of district 12-3A Division II for his play at linebacker in 2014, and he should get some interest from college coaches for that position, but it's his play on offense that makes me think he could also be a solid prospect as a fullback, H-back, or possibly even tight end, as he's asked to do a lot of the things he'd have to do at those positions already. He's a good runner with the ball, as can be seen in his many snaps taking a hand-off or pitch for a long gain, but he is also shown to be a reliable and dangerous receiver working off play-action.
Cody Mitchell (Jasper)
On the 2014 all-district team for 10-4A Division I, Mitchell (who was named the first team tight end) was listed as 6'6" and 240 pounds. He may not be quite that big, but he's definitely a big receiving target in the seam and on quick outs. Big guys with good hands who can move as well as Mitchell does tend to find scholarship offers on the table at some point. He's got work to do as a blocker but he has potential there. One concern I had about his highlight video is that it appeared to contain not one but two instances of him committing a kick-catch interference penalty while on punt coverage (he served as the team's long-snapper). I like the hustle, but don't like giving an opponent 15 free yards of field position.
Zach Stepp (Lubbock Coronado)
He's another big target with good speed who looks good when running and making catches up the seam. At a listed 6'4" and 235 pounds, he has the size of a tight end, but has been used more as a slot receiver, and though he seems to have experience running routes typical for a tight end, his highlights display very little of his blocking abilities. He should play college ball somewhere, but better offers will come if he can show himself to be at least a decent blocker.
Kaleb Nunez (Midland Lee)
He may be Midland Lee's best tight end since Eric Winston. He plays like more of a traditional tight end at 6'3" and 240 pounds, and in his very first varsity game in 2013 he broke Lee's school record for receptions in a game by making ten. He finished that season with 51 catches for 806 yards, and while those numbers dipped in 2014 (he says he had about 30 catches) he seems to have improved as a blocker, though his highlights don't show a lot of his work there. He's far from the most athletic player in this post, but he has experience lining up in multiple spots, has decent speed, and shows very good hands, catching and holding onto several passes after taking hard hits. His highlights should have more than 63 views.
Datryan Evans (Victoria East)
He's probably a better basketball than football player at this point but will soon learn, if he hasn't already, that there's much more demand for 6'5" 235-pound bodies to play tight end than power forward at the Division I level. He appears to have a long way to go before he's college-ready as a blocker or route-runner, but he moves very well for his size, and his head coach believes he has a high ceiling. Victoria East's Maxpreps page credited Evans with 17 receptions for 254 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2014, and he's not even his team's top tight end prospect. Between Evans and 2017 stud Chance McLeod, Victoria East (never known as a recruiting hotspot) may quietly have the state's best (or at least highest upside) tight end duo in 2015. I'm betting Evans's highlights will have a lot more than 18 views by the end of the spring.
Other 2016s to watch
Clay Alexander (Montgomery)
Versatile 6'4" 210-pound athlete from a Houston-area 6A school. He has good hands and decent speed, made 19 catches for 264 yards in 2014, and got snaps at tight end, in the slot, and even at fullback. He looks pretty thin and needs to get a lot stronger but should at least get D2 offers.
Drake Flores (San Antonio Johnson)
6'4" 210 pounds and very similar body-wise to Clay Alexander. He plays for a 6A school that's had one of San Antonio's better football programs the past few years. He made 8 receptions for 72 yards in 2014. He's pretty thin and needs to add a lot of good weight to play in college, but he runs decent routes and blocks with a mean streak.
Mason Burkey (Coleman)
A big (6'4" 235 pounds) two-way athlete from a small (3A Division II) west Texas school. May be a better DE but some coaches could like him better at TE.
Titus Gossett (Brock)
An all-state TE with H-back size (6'2" 220) from a basketball-crazy 3A school (10 combined state titles for their boys and girls teams since 2001), Gossett helped lead the Brock Eagles to a 12-2 record in their football program's very first varsity season in 2014. Guys from small rural schools and new programs often have a hard time getting exposure, and he checks both of those boxes, but he'll have plenty of chances to impress on the summer camp circuit.
Jonathan Sanchez (McAllen Memorial)
A pretty fast athlete for 6'7" and 215 pounds. He has played QB, WR, and TE and has plenty of experience blocking in Memorial's offense. His path to a football scholarship will likely be easiest as a TE.
Next I'll finish off this series with a look at a few tight ends in the 2017 class who already look like they'll be four-star material, and there may be a handful of them. Hopefully it won't take me two months to write that one up.