As the Texas Longhorns move to a hurry-up, no-huddle offense in 2015, no position requires wider-ranging skills than tight end, placing significant demands on a largely inexperienced group.
The key for the offensive coaching staff as a whole is to find a base personnel grouping that can remain on the field in order to keep the tempo fast. At tight end, that means that one player must be able to fill a variety of roles.
"What we're trying to do with our [tight end] is make him an on-the-line guy, a fullback guy and also a wide receiver as well," said new tight ends coach Jeff Traylor. "The reason we're trying to do that is because those defensive guys are smart too, so they're over there watching and when you sub in your packages they are going to sub in their packages."
So a skill-specific substition -- inserting a blocking specialist for a receiving specialist, for instance -- would not only tip off a defense to a certain package of plays, it would also hurt the pace the coaches now desire.
"The way the rules are now [the referee] can hold the ball up so you have to slow down, so you're trying to get in as many multiple formations as possible without subbing the personnel groupings," said Traylor.
One of the other benefits of installing a no-huddle, hurry-up offense is wearing out opposing defenses since getting plays off quickly doesn't allow those substitutions that can become critical for a gassed defensive tackle. Without having a versatile tight end in the base personnel grouping, Texas won't be able to gain that potentially significant advantage.
So what type of skill set does a tight end need to possess in order to function in the new offense?
"You hope your receiver can be a guy who can play [all three spots] so you can be in a spread set, to a tight end set to a fullback set. That means the kid has to be very athletic, very coachable, very smart, and can catch and block ... we've got that guy, we just have to get him better," said Traylor.
With blue-collar blocking specialist Geoff Swaim now a member of the Dallas Cowboys, MJ McFarland back in El Paso finishing his career at UTEP as a graduate transfer, and Greg Daniels out of eligibility, Texas returns two total receptions among the three tight ends currently on the roster.
Senior Alex De La Torre possesses both of those catches and to his credit, he's taken advantage of them, scoring a touchdown on one and gaining 19 yards on the other. However, he doesn't project as a difference-maker in 2015 as a pass-catcher. Even receiving more than a few targets on the year would be a surprise.
As for the in-line blocking requirement, the 6'1 listed height of De La Torre is a significant obstacle to overcome. He started the Orange-White as an attached tight end and certainly possesses the willigness to succeed, but he got overpowered several times by junior defensive end Bryce Cottrell when attempting to execute one-on-one blocks in pass protection. Perhaps it was a breakout performance from Cottrell, but it's more likely that De La Torre is simply overmatched by most defensive ends when working with his hand on the ground.
If the senior trots out with the ones against Notre Dame, it will be because Traylor and the rest of the offensive coaches simply don't trust the younger players -- sophomores Andrew Beck and Blake Whiteley.
A former high school linebacker who spent the spring of 2014 working at that position after enrolling early, the 6'3, 242-pounder caught the attention of assistant head coach for the offense/quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson during a drill.
In an effort to evaluate the different skill sets of each freshman on campus, the coaches typically put them through NFL Combine-style drills. One of those is a cross-field catch drill that includes six balls fired at the player, requiring strong hand-eye coordination to catch them in rapid succession while moving.
Watson quickly picked Beck out of the group as the one with the best hand-eye coordination of them all, sending him racing across the field to head coach Charlie Strong.
"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."
Despite playing through a herniainjury that required offseason surgery, Beck earned starts in the West Virginia and TCU contests. Against Texas Tech and West Virginia, the Florida native successfully executed 12 blocks to help the Texas running game once the coaching staff felt that he developed the confidence within the offense to contribute.
However, he dropped his only chance at a catch against the Red Raiders, though he did show some solid speed in getting open down the sideline. Given his performance in that drill last fall, the drop was probably an anomaly, an argument strengthened by his three catches in the Orange-White game.
With the size to block effectively from an attached position, experience as a move blocker, and some anecdotes and flashes of receiving upside, Beck should have a strong chance to earn the starting job in fall camp.
As for Whiteley, a Canadian who spent one year at Arizona Western College, the biggest key is simply gaining more experience. Ranked as the top junior college tight end in 2014, Whiteley didn't face a high level of competition in high school, but he's now spent three semesters at Texas, giving him some time to develop. Still mostly an unproven commodity, he's the true wild card in the tight end competition, as it's difficult to speculate about the diversity of his skill set or his proficiency in any of the roles mentioned by his position coach.
Speaking of wild cards, there's also 2015 signee Devonaire Clarington. Traylor expects the Floridian to arrive in time for fall camp, but there are certainly no guarantees. If Clarington does avoid spending a year at a prep school or two years at a junior college, he'll certainly provide significant capabilities as a flex receiving threat and performed well as a defensive end in high school, so there's evidence that he knows how to use his hands.
As with a number of other positions on the roster, there are major question marks surrounding Traylor's group, but there are some positive signs.
"We've got three or four guys that are working their tails off," Traylor said. "We have some work to do, there's no doubt about it. But, Andrew Beck is a great kid who works his tail off, Blake Whiteley and Alex De La Torre have been fantastic for me so far, and we'll see which one of them plays the best and they'll line up against Notre Dame and get going."