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An early look at six talented tight ends in the 2018 Texas class

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The state of Texas continues to produce four-star TE recruits with its 2018 class

Houston area sophomores Mustapha Muhammad and Malcolm Epps pose at Alabama's Junior Day on Feb. 27, 2016.
Houston area sophomores Mustapha Muhammad and Malcolm Epps pose at Alabama's Junior Day on Feb. 27, 2016.

I have written repeatedly in the past about the Texas Longhorns' issues with the tight end position that have persisted since the early departure of Jermichael Finley to the NFL after the 2007 season and the career-altering injury to Blaine Irby early in the 2008 season. Those issues are familiar to die-hard fans: an inability to develop talent at the position, failed attempts at converting high school wide receivers into college tight ends, injuries to promising players, and both Mack Brown and Charlie Strong keeping former tight ends coach Bruce Chambers employed by the university for as long as he was. New offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert will be the sixth play-caller Texas has had in the span of seven seasons, dating back to Greg Davis's last year as OC (2010), a level of turnover that no doubt had a big effect by itself on the use and production of the team's tight ends during that time.

On the recruiting trail, there have been a number of busts, and in the past few recruiting cycles every time it looked like Texas would finally land that high-upside tight end who would bring the position back to prominence in Austin and maybe make an all-Big 12 team or two, the recruit in question would flip to Notre Dame (Durham Smythe), not qualify academically (John Thomas, Devonaire Clarington), or succumb to the lure of Nick Saban's seductive charms championship rings and commit to Alabama late in the cycle (Irvin Smith).

Now, with 2017 Rivals four-star tight end Major Tennison having been committed to the Longhorns for five months but publicly keeping his options open and either making or planning trips to Alabama and Michigan, the UT faithful is hoping and praying that the team doesn't lose yet another promising recruit at the position between now and February 2017.

In the fall of 2018 Garrett Gray will be a senior, Blake Whiteley may still be around as a sixth-year senior if he is granted an additional year of eligibility for missing all of 2015 due to injury, Peyton Aucoin will be a junior or redshirt sophomore (and may have moved to offensive line by then), and whatever tight end(s) Texas signs next February will be a sophomore or redshirt freshman. It would be futile to predict this early how many tight ends Texas will need or target in the 2018 class. We can make a good guess on a few players they might eventually target, though there will surely be some legit players in that class whose names aren't known now who put themselves on the prospect map with a good junior season.

At this point a year ago, the 2017 class looked like it had a pair of very special tight ends in Brock Wright and Kedrick James, while Tennison appeared promising but didn't yet look like a future four-star recruit. Right now, the 2018 class appears to have three potential superstar tight ends, and a few others already look like legitimate D1 prospects and will be players to watch this summer and fall.

In recent years, Texas has had to contend with Alabama, Notre Dame, and Stanford beating them out for their most-coveted tight end targets, and that problem won't go away for as long as those programs both win games and throw to their TEs at a much higher rate than Texas has recently. But for some of 2018's brightest TE stars, UT may have just as big of a problem keeping them away from defensive coordinators looking to recruit them to the other side of the ball, or basketball coaches wanting to sign them for that sport instead.

Here I'll introduce you to six of those up-and-coming 2018 tight ends. Two of them are already well known to recruitniks, another will be known by everyone by the end of the spring, and three others attend smaller schools and have yet to really blow up but could be a good junior season away from getting quality offers of their own. I may do a ranking for these athletes a year from now, but for this post I'll introduce them in alphabetical order by last name.

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Byron Bolin (Leonard)

Standing 6'4" and 235 pounds and boasting soft hands, Bolin is a matchup problem for defenses at any level, let alone in Class 3A Division II. Located about 60 miles northeast of Dallas, Leonard is a small school of less than 300 students and competes in one of the state's lowest classifications. It suits up only 25 or so players for its varsity football squad, so having an athlete like Bolin on the roster is invaluable for the team's efforts on both sides of the ball.

At tight end, Bolin caught 15 passes for 267 yards and 4 touchdowns last season, and on defense and special teams he was credited with 69 total tackles, 2 blocked punts, and a blocked field goal. He earned first team all-district 5-3A Division II honors at tight end, and second team honors at defensive end. He is also a member of Leonard's varsity basketball team and is fast enough to run a leg on the track team's 4x200 relay.

Leonard has had a recent run of success in football, making the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, and in 2013 they advanced five rounds deep before falling to Cisco, that year's 2A Division II state champion. That success has come without the help of major college talent, as the only Leonard player ever to reach the Division I level was 2006 North Texas signee Kail Krider. Shane Fletcher, Leonard's head coach since 2005, believes Bolin can be the next Leonard Tiger to reach that level. Fletcher says Bolin is more gifted than the former UNT defensive end, and describes him as "one of the most agile big men I have been around in a long time."

Bolin's Hudl page has only game-specific highlight reels, none of which run for as long as 40 seconds, so there isn't a ton of film out there on him, and if you watch all of it you'll see most of his receptions from the 2015 season but almost no evidence of his blocking skills or play on defense. But he looks very promising in what he does show, as he gets out of his stance pretty quickly when going out for a pass, and though he doesn't really get any looks in the deep middle of the field, he catches and runs well enough to potentially be a weapon there. Below you can watch video of his two touchdown catches vs. Whitewright.

Reggie Chaney (Frisco Liberty)

Chaney has outstanding size and speed, and could very well end up being the best tight end in this class. He is a legit 6'6" and may be as tall as 6'8", and he carries somewhere between 215 and 232 pounds. Playing for a football team that finished 2-8 in 2015 and completed only 100 passes for 13 touchdowns all season, the standout sophomore caught 27 passes for a team-high 641 yards (23.7 yards/catch) and 7 TDs.

At different times he lined up out wide, in the slot, and as an attached tight end, and though his route-running wasn't always pretty to watch, once he caught the ball he was a threat to score or pick up huge chunks of yardage from any spot. He's relatively raw as a blocker but he has the potential to be really strong in that area down the road. Liberty head coach Chris Burtch says that partly owing to Chaney's inexperience as a true tight end, there were times, especially early in the 2015 season, where he struggled in understanding how to play with leverage, but his blocking improved as the season went along and the coaches started playing him in an attached role more often, and by the end of the season his ability to block on the edge made outside zone one of Liberty's best plays.

Burtch describes Chaney as a very aggressive player and believes that in addition to being an elite tight end prospect he "could be an incredible defensive end." Burtch, who has been a head coach for 21 years, says, "I've seen big kids that age but I've never seen a big kid that age who can run a 4.58 [forty-yard dash] and have a 34-inch vertical."

Chaney is currently a 247Sports composite four-star recruit and ranked as the state's #6 prospect... in basketball. Just last month TexasHoops.com ranked him as the state's top basketball prospect in the 2018 class. During the 2015-2016 basketball season, he was the second-leading scorer (13.5 points/game) and leading rebounder (6.3 per game) on a Liberty team that finished with a record of 30-6, ran away with the championship of district 9-5A, and advanced four rounds into the playoffs before losing to eventual 5A state champion Lancaster. After the season he was named to the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches (TABC) All-Region Team for Class 5A Region 2, one of only two sophomores among the 20 players who were so honored.

Simply put, football is his second-best sport right now, but as Coach Burtch says, "He's an incredibly explosive athlete, regardless of the sport." College coaches seem to agree. Oklahoma and SMU have both offered him for basketball, and football offers have come in from SMU, TCU, Texas Tech, and Tulsa, and that list could be downright huge by the end of the spring. According to Coach Burtch, Texas offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, who saw Chaney last fall while he was still on Tulsa's staff, is a big fan, as is Houston offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, who "loved him in the fall". Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley is also expected to stop by and watch him at some point this spring.

Chaney will also be playing in some very competitive basketball tournaments this spring and summer as a member of RM5 Elite's 17 and under team. He is the only sophomore listed on what is otherwise an all-junior roster.

He still has a couple of years to decide if he wants to play power forward or tight end in college (or both!), and by that point he should be able to pick any school he wants. In football he's raw and unpolished in a lot of ways, but to see his size and athleticism on the field is to see a player who, if he dedicates himself to the sport, can be as good as he wants to be.

Reggie Chaney is an athlete whose stock should really blow up in the coming months, and I'd be surprised if he didn't have offers in at least one sport from most of the Big 12 by the end of the spring. He does not have a full-season highlight video available, but below you can see clips of his performance vs. The Colony on October 15, 2015, in which he caught 7 passes for 174 yards and 2 TDs.

And as a bonus, here is a basketball highlight video of his work at a "super sophomore" camp last summer.

Malcolm Epps (Spring Dekaney) - Alabama commit

Epps doesn't have the longest offer list among the state's 2018 tight ends, but he may be the most high-profile member of the group right now because of his late February commitment to Alabama. Nick Saban doesn't accept a commitment from just anybody in February of their sophomore year.

Epps caught 21 passes for 364 yards and 5 TDs last fall, finishing second on his team in all three categories. He was voted the Offensive Newcomer of the Year for District 15-6A. He is commonly listed at just under 6'6" and 215 pounds, and when running routes he already looks pretty fluid and uses his length well to go up and grab passes away from defenders and away from his body.

To compare him with a similarly-built fellow north Houston athlete, he looks at least as impressive overall as a sophomore as 2016 Illinois signee and one-time Texas A&M commit Zarrian Holcombe (Humble Summer Creek) did as a junior. And Epps's blocking skills look much further along than Holcombe's were at the same age, and he should be carrying a lot more weight than he has now by the time he plays his first college game.

Epps committed to Alabama at its Junior Day on February 27, just days after reportedly receiving offers from Florida State, Texas A&M, and LSU, in addition to the Crimson Tide. He'll no doubt have plenty of schools trying to change his mind about his college choice in the 22 months between now and NSD 2018.

After watching him on the football field you will probably not be surprised to learn that he is also a standout on the basketball court, which is a pattern you've probably noticed for the athletes featured in this post. He was a starter on a Dekaney team that finished 28-8 in the 2015-16 season, with all of its losses coming against teams that reached at least the second round of the playoffs. Individually, Epps is ranked by RCS Sports as the 26th best player in the 2018 class from the greater Houston area.

Reese Moore (Seminole)

Comparing the combine testing performances of different players at events held at different locations and a year apart definitely has some hazards, but it can still be an interesting exercise. Take this comparison, for instance:

Player A - 6'4.5", 245 pounds, 5.13 forty time, 4.64 shuttle, 28.5-foot powerball toss, and 29.3-inch vertical jump
Player B - 6'6", 249 pounds, 5.08 forty time, 4.69 shuttle, 41-foot powerball toss, and 23.4-inch vertical jump

Player A is 2017 Baylor tight end commit Kedrick James (Waco La Vega), who recorded those figures at the 2015 The Opening Dallas combine at Arlington's Lamar High School on March 15, 2015. I ranked him as the state's second-best tight end prospect in the 2017 class in a post from two weeks ago.

Player B is sixteen-year-old Reese Moore, who recorded his figures at the (drastically over-named) Nike+ Football The Opening Regional Dallas combine on March 13, 2016 at Coppell High School.

To be sure, James looked - both in the seasons before and since that 2015 combine - stronger and more explosive than his testing figures would suggest. I doubt Moore will ever be ranked as the nation's fourth-best TE prospect (as James is now), but the fact that his raw testing figures at the same age compare so favorably with a player of James's caliber shows that he's a very good athlete for his size in his own right.

Moore was one of the few bright spots on a Seminole football team that finished 1-9 in 2015. He caught 14 passes for 209 yards and 2 TDs, and he graded out at 81% on his blocking assignments. He also logged some snaps at defensive end, making 21.5 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, a sack, a fumble recovery, and a blocked kick. He was a unanimous All-District 1-4A Division I selection at tight end, and also earned honorable mention All-State distinction as a punter(!) after averaging 42.5 yards on 39 punts. I doubt you could find a team in the state last season  that had a bigger punter.

He seems to have good hands and isn't slow by any means, but if he is to stick at tight end and play at the FBS level he'll have to improve his speed in the next two years. He's definitely not in "sophomore year Brock Wright" territory when it comes to his blocking skills, but he's aggressive and has good length, and he should improve there with more experience and as he gets physically stronger.

His collegiate athletic future is in football, though, as with the aforementioned Reggie Chaney, basketball may be his best sport right now. In the 2015-16 season he averaged 17 points, 10 rebounds, and nearly 3 blocked shots per game. According to Seminole basketball coach David Williams, Moore finished with 15 or more rebounds in a game eight times, and blocked six or more shots in numerous games as well. He was honored as his district's Offensive MVP, and was the only sophomore named to the TABC's All-Region team for Class 4A Region 1.

A tenth grader who accomplishes all that at any competition level is an athlete whose development bears watching. Moore could develop into a leaner and stronger tight end who plays quicker as he gets older like the similarly humongous Dylan Soehner (Prairie Grove, Arkansas), a 2016 Iowa State signee who played his senior season at somewhere around 6'7" and 260 pounds. Or he could grow into an offensive tackle and end up being a four-year starter at Division II power Angelo State like Seminole alum Rance Layton (who will be a senior at ASU this fall). A lot can happen to a 6'6" 250-pound sixteen-year-old's body in two years' time.

Seminole sits in the panhandle about 60 miles north of Odessa, 80 miles southwest of Lubbock, and 25 miles east of the New Mexico border. Needless to say, that's not an area of the state that college recruiters are known to beat a path to, but Seminole's coaches believe Moore has D1 potential, and his presence will hopefully bring an increase in traffic from upper-level college coaches between now and early 2018.

He is, by all accounts, a hard worker, a high character kid, and a great student, and Seminole head football coach Kent Jackson tells BON, "I know beyond a shadow of a doubt he is as good as I have seen at his age in my 30-year career."

Mustapha Muhammad (Fort Bend Ridge Point)

At this early juncture he holds the lone reported UT offer at the tight end position for the 2018 recruiting class, and he has one of the longest and most impressive offer sheets of any Texas athlete in his grade. Muhammad already held offers from Houston, Texas A&M, Michigan, and Baylor when Texas offered him in late November after he attended the Thanksgiving game versus Texas Tech. Since that time he has added offers from Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Alabama, Nebraska, LSU, and Florida State.

With programs of that caliber having begun pursuing him before spring break of his sophomore year, what more can we really say about his upside? Most online recruiting profiles list his measurements as 6'5" and 225 pounds, and his film confirms that he has very good length and knows how to use it to his advantage as a receiver. In 2015 he caught 19 passes for 321 yards (16.9 yards/catch) and 5 TDs, and like Malcolm Epps he showed the ability to hurt defenses while lined up in a variety of spots. He should be a pretty good blocker down the road - and he certainly isn't a bad one now - but still needs to get stronger and add good weight to his frame.

If you created a tight end in a lab, he'd look a lot like Mustapha Muhammad, and by the time he's a senior I suspect there will be very little that he can't do on the football field. As I stated earlier, I think Reggie Chaney has the potential to be the best tight end out of this group, if he really wants to be and dedicates himself to football, but for now Muhammad and Epps are 1A and 1B in the class, and I wouldn't quibble with the two being ranked in either order.

He is also a basketball guy and has been a varsity player for Ridge Point - a Class 5A school - since his freshman season, which certainly says something about his level of athleticism, though he was not named to 23-5A's all-district team (in basketball or football, oddly enough), and he may only be the fifth-best basketball player mentioned in this post.

Joshua Sanders (Life High School Waxahachie)

He is the player in this post about whom I know the least. You could watch every one of his Hudl video clips and see only a handful of plays that feature him on offense, so there's not a lot to go on when evaluating him as a tight end prospect, but he has good speed, a good frame to build on, an aggressive demeanor, two years in which to improve, and state-level honors for his play on the basketball court, to boot.

He's nowhere near being a finished product right now, and add up every trait mentioned in the previous paragraph and I think Sanders could be a really good player by the time he's a senior, be it at tight end or defensive end, the latter being where you'll see him lined up in most of his sophomore year highlights.

Sanders - listed at 6'4" and 215 pounds on his MaxPreps page - made the most of his few receiving opportunities in 2015, catching 5 passes for 178 yards (35.6 yards/catch) and 3 TDs, while at defensive end he was credited with 48 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. The coaches of District 6-3A Division I unanimously voted him as their first team all-district tight end, and he was also named to the second team at defensive end.

In the 2015-16 basketball season Sanders was the leading scorer on a team that ran the table on its district opponents, beat its first four playoff opponents by an average of 19.5 points before losing in the 3A Region 2 championship game to Van Alstyne, and finished with an overall record of 35-4. After the season he was named to the TABC's Class 3A All-State team and was the only sophomore among the twenty all-state honorees for that classification.

Life School Waxahachie (also referred to as Life School Red Oak, which may have been the location of its high school before the new Waxahachie campus opened in 2015), is part of a north Texas-based system of charter schools and has competed in athletics at the Class 3A level for the past two years, but will move up to 4A for the next two school years and compete in 4A Division II for football. As such, Sanders's profile as a potential football recruit seems to be low at the moment, with no recruit profiles on any of the major sites and, from what I can tell, no college coaches following him on Twitter as of yet.

Geography is on his side, though, as his school is a stone's throw from I-35E and a short distance south of Dallas County D1 factories DeSoto and Lancaster, both of which are very well-trafficked stops for recruiters from almost every college football program in the region. At some point between now and the end of the 2016 football season, Sanders's play on the field should draw some of that recruiting traffic to the northern outskirts of Waxahachie.