When asked about positions of concern this spring, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman never mentioned tight end, but that belied the reality of a position that only includes three healthy scholarship players for the next 12 practices.
There’s senior Andrew Beck, who has dealt with multiple foot fractures and redshirted last season, along with redshirt freshman Max Cummins, a former defensive end who played the position as a junior in high school. And redshirt freshman Reese Leitao.
As sophomore Cade Brewer sits out the spring due to his ACL injury and 2018 signee Malcom Epps finishes up his high school career, Leitao will take center stage this spring as he works behind Beck and attempts to position himself for success this fall.
Like Brewer, Leitao was an important late addition to the 2017 recruiting class — when head coach Tom Herman and his fledgling staff extended an offer to Leitao, he was still committed to Nebraska. But he quickly visited, decommitted from the Huskers, and then pledged to the Longhorns shortly thereafter.
A high school basketball player whose father is the head coach at DePaul, Leitao started focusing on football late in his prep career. Playing at Oklahoma powerhouse Jenks helped him grow quickly and he was a two-way standout over his last two seasons. In fact, some schools even recruited him as a defensive end, where Leitao showed tremendous quickness and physicality for his size.
Making it to Austin almost never happened, however, as Leitao was arrested and charged with a felony for allegedly selling Xanax on the Jenks campus late last February. After the Leitao family hired the top criminal defense attorney in Tulsa, the charges were reduced to a misdemeanor and Leitao was allowed to enroll at Texas. As a result, he served a three-game suspension to start the season that ultimately led him to redshirt.
By the time Brewer went down with his injury and Chris Warren III left the program, Leitao was one of two healthy scholarship tight ends left on the roster for the Texas Bowl. It was just too late for burning Leitao’s redshirt to make any sense.
“That new redshirt rule that the AFCA, Todd Berry, and all of us coaches are hoping to get into effect, I wish that were in effect last year,” Herman said last week. “We would have played him the last few games. It was more prudent to redshirt him. Had a great bowl prep, then the two months with Coach McKnight did wonders for him.”
Going through an offseason in Austin for the first time has helped Leitao, who is now up to 245 pounds on his 6’3 frame.
“He’s strong as an ox, super smart,” Herman said. “The guy is majoring in neuroscience. I didn’t even know that was a major. Extremely smart. Loves football. You can tell he’s a coach’s kid. Goes hard when he screws up. It kills him. We’re excited about him.”
The excitement also stems from the fact that Leitao was the right mentality to excel as an in-line blocker, but also possesses the athleticism to threaten opponents as a receiver — he caught 34 passes for 423 yards and four touchdowns as a senior. During bowl prep, offensive coordinator Tim Beck expressed his satisfaction in seeing Leitao develop that area of his game.
“He runs well and he really catches the ball well,” Beck said. “I thought he was more of a guy that would just slobberknock you down inside there, but he can move pretty good.”
The tight end position features heavily in the pro-spread offense run by Herman and while he doesn’t have players with ideal height for his scheme, he is satisfied with where the position is this spring.
“We don’t have like what we had at Ohio State with Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett,” Herman said. “We don’t have 6’6, 260 that can put his hand in the dirt and go block an elite 7-technique. What we do have are guys that are athletic, that can move, that do have leverage. They aren’t short by any stretch. By tight end standards, 6’2, 6’3 is not extremely tall. They can move around. They can play in the slot. They can run routes. They can catch the ball. The offense is pretty wide open.”
If Leitao starts to full his significant potential this spring, then he’ll place himself in the mix to see major playing time this fall. And that’s why Leitao is one of the most intriguing players on the roster heading into April’s Orange-White game.