After targeting the tight ends six times for six catches, 92 yards, and two touchdowns in 2016, the Texas Longhorns will use the position in a much more complete manner under new head coach Tom Herman this season.
In fact, it’s one of the most important positions on offense, including in the passing game, after former offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert almost completely ignored it last season save for blocking purposes.
“We think that position is probably as hard — or maybe complex is the right word — as the quarterback in this offense,” Herman said on National Signing Day. “We need an extremely versatile guy that can split out on the slot, put his hand on the ground, block a defensive end, and one that can motion in the back field and become a fullback or H-back of sorts.
“So we've had tremendous success with those guys all the way from James Casey at Rice to Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett at Ohio State. Even the tight end, if you want to call him that, Tyler McCloskey at Houston. He's a 6’0.5 foot guy, playing tight end, having tremendous success.”
In fact, the former high school quarterback who was rated as a linebacker before moving to fullback and then the more diverse tight end role in Herman’s offense was one of the most productive tight ends in the American Conference in 2016. McCloskey finished first among conference tight ends in receiving touchdowns (four) and second in receptions (23).
Not bad for a guy who wasn’t even close to cracking the top 2,000 prospects nationally when he graduated from Houston Memorial. And perhaps a glimpse into what Herman can do with more highly-regarded talent at tight end.
“So it is a critical role in our offense,” Herman said. “We may be in the shotgun and we may be up tempo, but we are a pro-style offense. I tell everybody that will listen, we're a pro-spread offense.”
What does that mean? It’s not just coach-speak — Herman rattled off a handful of plays that NFL teams use as well, including split zone, divide zone, two-back power, lead, and iso.
The difference, as the Texas head coach points out, is that instead of working from under center, Herman’s offense will work out of the shotgun and also employ the aforementioned tempo.
The personnel grouping helps lend the spread aspect to the scheme, as the Buckeyes once played out of 11 personnel — three wide receivers, one running back, and one tight end — 98 percent of the time during one full season.
In order to play with that grouping and run all those different schemes, the tight end has be able to play a lot of roles.
Back in December, CoachLamons laid out some of the different blocks required on Herman’s bread-and-butter plays:
Herman has two main running plays in his “smash-mouth spread” offense — the inside zone and the power. The inside zone can be run two ways, as a true inside zone, with the tight end on the line of scrimmage, double teaming with the tackle, then working to the second and third levels, or as a split zone, with the tight end kicking out the backside end or outside linebacker. Either way, the tight end’s block is crucial to the success of this play.
The tight end also serves as a kick out or lead blocker on the power play that Herman loves to run. This play is run as a counter play with motion to the outside of the formation and as a true run play. It can be versatile, run with the quarterback or a running back, and has a variety of read and run-pass options that can accompany it. It’s also pretty useless if there is no tight end/H-back to execute the required blocks on your roster.
Many of those roles aren’t suitable for Cade Brewer yet, though Herman did commend his athleticism and ball skills.
Since the head coach mentioned that one of the current scholarship tight ends is currently dealing with an injury — likely senior Andrew Beck — that may only leave Peyton Aucoin for the spring.
An experienced in-line blocker in high school, the New Orleans native didn’t show much ability in the passing game at Brother Martin, in part because he paired with a receiving tight end in Irvin Smith, the former Texas target who opted for Alabama.
So during the spring, Herman won’t have much to work with and could entertain a possible position change. Demarco Boyd anyone? The former Gilmer standout demonstrated his ability to play running back in high school and could be used primarily as a fullback/move blocker at H-back.
If not, Herman will have to make due with walk ons like Robert Willis, Matt Center, and Chris Fehr, who all have good enough size to play some H-back and in-line tight end. At least in providing some practice fodder.
In that regard, however, it’s certainly disappointing that signee Reese Leitao isn’t already on campus, as he’ll have to acclimate quickly one he arrives to have a chance of making an early impact.
Leitao’s combination of physicality honed on defense, his college-ready size, maturity, and intelligence all make him a candidate to see the field early given the lack of depth, even though he’ll have to assimilate a lot of information in a short period of time.
Then there’s the pass-catching portion of the tight end responsibilities in Tom Herman’s offense. In addition to serving as blockers in max-protection looks, the position will also get a chance to run some pop passes, stretch the seam, and serve as targets in play-action situations.
Most importantly for an offense that struggled in the red zone last year, it will also split tight ends out and run fades or corner routes to take advantages of mismatches. Both Brewer and Leitao could serve key roles in those looks.
“Really, really athletic,” Herman said of Brewer. “He's undersized right now. If we had to play a game tomorrow, he would not be physically ready. But tremendous ball skills; tremendous athleticism. You can see the frame is there to carry the weight necessary.”
As for Leitao, Herman pointed out that he’s a former Nebraska commit.
“They know a thing or two about recruiting tight ends,” he said. “And we're excited about both those guys. Because the tight end in this offense is very, very critical.”