A redundant question arises at the start of the Texas Longhorns football season every year. Is there a tight end? Since Jermichael Finley's departure in 2007, Texas hasn't answered this question in a meaningful way with a talented playmaker.
The Texas tight end position is much like Eminem's single "Real Slim Shady." Everyone is continually asking someone to stand up, in almost annoying fashion, but there's no real answer to the question. It's come to a point where Texas fans embrace the absence, dismissing the tight end position as a whole.
Believe it or not, there was a time where Texas fielded some of the best tight ends in the Big 12, and the entire country. In what seems like ages ago, Texas featured difference makers like Bo Scaife, David Thomas, and Jermichael Finley who made key catches, but also committed to run blocking, creating holes for the Longhorns ground game. Whether it's been injury or poor recruiting, Texas hasn't seen a player like this in a long time. Like a magic trick, the once-talented position of tight end at Texas has suddenly vanished.
Although the position does not receive much love, the tight end has an ability to transform an offense from good to great, even in today's world of college football. Look at Alabama's OJ Howard, Ole Miss' Evan Engram, or Stanford's Austin Hooper. Each played on exceptional teams and maintained pivotal roles on the offense, presenting difficult match ups against opposing teams.
Because of their strength to block on off-tackle runs and their athleticism to slip out and catch passes, these players changed the dynamic of their offenses and were one more difficult element that opposing teams had to stop. With that in mind, that's why it's important a Texas tight end steps up. The tight end position can transform offenses, turning them from good to elite teams, or in the Longhorns' case, serviceable to good.
In 2016, the Longhorns return four scholarship tight ends who will hopefully fill the void. Among them are two players who contributed last season, Andrew Beck and Caleb Bluiett. Bluiett and Beck return to the 40 Acres looking to make a more sizable contribution in Sterlin Gilbert's new offense than they did in 2015. The duo combined for only 16 catches for 244 yards last season in a lagging offense, but the upperclassmen come back to campus as the preemptive starters at the position.
In addition to Bluiett and Beck, the Longhorns return junior Blake Whiteley, who sat out out 2015 with a knee injury. Texas also adds blocking tight end Peyton Aucoin to the mix in 2016, an incoming freshman from Brother Martin High School in New Orleans.
Caleb Bluiett, Sr, 3L
Andrew Beck, Jr, 2L
Peyton Aucoin, Fr, HS
Blake Whiteley, Jr, SQ
Alex De La Torre, FB/TE-Graduation
The leader of the tight ends group for the Longhorns will be fifth-year senior Caleb Bluiett. The definition of an athlete, Blueitt has traveled all over the field, playing defensive end, tight end, and the occasional H-Back. After his switch to tight end last season, Bluiett shined on multiple occasions, both catching the football and blocking.
Playing on defense for most of his football life, Bluiett displays an uncanny toughness for a tight end, proving time and again that he's willing to block anyone on the field. This toughness allowed Bluiett to receive the majority of playing time in the Longhorns' run-heavy offense last season, excelling in this area over guys like Garett Gray and Andrew Beck.
With his big frame (6'3, 266 pounds), Bluiett's physicality made him an effective lead blocker on designed run plays last season. On a 2016 offense that looks like it will be run-oriented, Bluiett's aggression as a blocker on the line or at H-back makes him very important to the offense. Just take a look at the video below for an example of the physicality I'm talking about.
For a former defensive player, Bluiett doesn't look entirely misguided running routes either. Last season, he led Texas tight ends with eight receptions for 167 yards. More importantly, it seemed like those catches came at key moments, securing big touchdowns against Baylor and Oklahoma and winning a jump ball in the heated game against Oklahoma State.
His acceptable hands and athleticism force defenses to respect his pass-catching ability, providing another option for the quarterback to throw to. He has capable receiving skills and speed that creates openings downfield. Of all the tight end options, he seems like the biggest receiving threat.
Although a serviceable offensive threat, Bluiett will never be an elite playmaker on the offensive side of the ball. Defenses will respect him, but he won't be a threat for which defenses need to plan. In an extremely thin position in terms of playmaking talent, Bluiett leads all other options on the depth chart because of his leadership, physicality, and serviceable performance as a pass-catcher. No one will mistake him for an all-conference player, but he will do the dirty work, making him an attractive option for Sterlin Gilbert.
Behind Bluiett is junior Andrew Beck who is looking to elevate his game after an underwhelming sophomore year. A linebacker coming out of high school, Beck joins Bluiett as another defensive player turned tight end to solve Texas' woes at the position. However, his transition to the position has not been as easy as anticipated.
In his first two seasons at the position, Beck has struggled mightily with his blocking ability. Due to a lack of physicality and poor technique, Beck consistently was blown back by defenders and was unable to set meaningful blocks up in the Longhorns ground attack in 2015. If he expects to receive playing time, he needs to become a much stronger blocker for the offense.
As a receiver, Beck progressed in 2015, catching eight balls for 77 yards after a freshman season that featured zero catches. Like Bluiett, Beck has the athleticism to make catches in the passing game if called upon, but he doesn't posses elite receiving skills. With a lack of those dominant receiving skills, it's pivotal he progresses in his blocking ability. Over spring practices, Beck worked to refine his fundamentals as a blocking utility, and he needs to if he wants a shot at playing meaningful snaps. Without elite playmaking ability, Beck can't risk being a bad blocker and expect to see playing time, especially with Peyton Aucoin enrolling this summer.
Peyton Aucoin comes to Texas as the only tight end recruit from the 2016 recruiting class. Standing at 6'5, 240 pounds, Aucoin comes to the Forty Acres prized as a talented blocking tight end. A physical, gritty run blocker, Aucoin paved the way for his high school running game that averaged over 500 yards in total offense his senior season. Coaches believe Aucoin's value as a blocker will make him incredibly important to the Longhorns ground game.
"I know he can capture the edge of a defense for us and let us run the ball" Strong mentioned when Aucoin signed his National Letter of Intent.
Aucoin collected offers from the nation's best as a high school recruit, including Michigan, Ole Miss, Florida, and Arizona State. Needless to say, some of the best coaches in college football prized Aucoin's impressive strength as a blocker. While he is one of the strongest blocking tight end recruits in the entire country, there are a lot of questions about his lack of production catching the football.
At Brother Martin, Aucoin only caught one pass his entire season. While Aucoin serves as a strong blocker who could play immediately, he needs to take strides in the passing game to become truly effective. An appropriate comparison would be former Texas tight end Geoff Swaim, who was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2015.
In my opinion, the odd man out at tight end is Blake Whiteley. Whiteley returns to the field this year after missing the entire 2015 season due to a knee injury and projects much like Peyton Aucoin, a strong blocker, but not necessarily excellent receiver. Whiteley didn't receive substantial reps during the spring behind Beck and Bluiett, making it seem he won't see the field much. With Aucoin coming in as well, Charlie Strong brings in a healthier, younger version of Whiteley who he may be tempted to play before him.
With limited natural talent at the position, it's an uphill battle for a Texas tight end to rise to the occasion and become a playmaker. However, with deep and incredibly talented groups at running back and receiver, the Longhorns probably don't need an all-conference player to step up. All they need are players who can be strong run blockers who can at least be serviceable in the passing game. With Bluiett, Beck, and Aucoin leading the way, the position looks equipped to do that. One thing is for certain though, a natural playmaker at the position is still needed.