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Texas football: Longhorns spring TE preview

Another position enters the spring with major question marks.

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, replacing the 21 catches for 123 yards and three touchdowns produced by departing Texas Longhorns tight ends doesn't seem like a massive task until considering the blocking contributions of Geoff Swaim and MJ McFarland.

The latter improved significantly over his first several years in the program before transferring home to UTEP for his final season of eligibility, while Swaim was a blue-collar worker effective on the line of scrimmage and from the move blocker position as an H-back or fullback. His contributions often flew under the radar, but make no mistake -- he was one of the most important offensive players for Texas over the last two seasons.

So even though assistant head coach for the offense/quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson wasn't able to coax the promised production from his tight ends, the group did serve an important role in the running game as the most consistent blockers on the team.

Unfortunately, there isn't much experience returning with the loss of McFarland -- sophomore Andrew Beck is still recovering from offseason hernia surgery after playing through the injury last fall. The only other scholarship tight end, Blake Whiteley, didn't play last season while redshirting, but still has three seasons of eligibility left.

How will Texas use the tight ends?

Last season, the Longhorns operated frequently out of heavy sets utilizing both Swaim and McFarland, with cameos from Beck and fullbacks Alex De La Torre and Dominic Cruciani. With the season to more of an up-tempo, possibly spread attack featuring fewer substitutions and less pre-snap movement, Texas will likely run much more 11 personnel with only one tight end on the field.

The overall usage discussion boils down to related questions about Beck's ability to continue to improve as move blocker following starts there against West Virginia and TCU. Given the fact that he played through his injury all of last season, he would seem to have some upside there just based on being healthy. But can he work effectively lined up on the line of scrimmage to provide some versatility for an offense that will seek to make fewer personnel changes?

Whiteley was an in-line blocker exclusively in college and didn't have much experience there from his high school days, so it's unclear if Texas plans on using him in the role.

Can Blake Whiteley live up to his billing?

Rated as a consensus four-star prospect and the No. 1 junior college tight end in the 2015 class, Whiteley was one of the most important tight ends recruits for the Longhorns in the last decade. Until Florida product Debonaire Clarington signed in February, he was the most highly-rated during that stretch.

Swaim was never able to provide much of a receiving threat, yet looked a little quicker and more crisp with his routes than Whiteley did while warming up before the spring game. Granted, the observation came nearly a year ago in a non-game environment, but the only evidence that Whiteley can be a legitimate pass-catching threat came against much smaller opponents in Canada.

One thing he does have working in his favor is his work ethic, at least according to a former teammate.

"He is a hard worker," Swaim said last fall. "He has a good work ethic. He is a good guy to be around and he is the kind of guy you can rely upon. You know what you are going to get and you know that he is going to do the right thing."

Regardless of how much impact Whiteley can have in the passing game, if he can approximate Swaim's effectiveness as a blocker, he'll make a major positive contribution to Texas in 2015.

Can Andrew Beck provide a receiving threat?

Despite not catching a pass last season, Beck had a major opportunity on a wheel route down the sideline against Texas Tech, losing control of the slightly under thrown pass after it hit his hands. Separation ability has been the major issue for Longhorns tight ends in recent years and he's known as a player with good hands. In fact, he's supposed to have some of the best hands on the team, making the transition from linebacker as a result of a strong performance in a pass-catching drill last fall.

"I started politicking right away," Watson said last November. "I ran up to Charlie and say 'Hey, 47 has got unbelievable hands, and he can run.' At that time, we were good at back, but we needed some depth at tight end."

Watson went on to call Beck a perfect fit at the move blocking position, but he doesn't have a great deal of experience as a route runner, so this spring could be hugely important for him to refine his ability in that regard to maximize his effectiveness as a pass catcher.