By the end of the Texas Bowl last December, the Texas Longhorns didn’t have a single healthy, available scholarship tight end on the roster.
Andrew Beck was healthy, but not willing to expend his final season of eligibility for one game. Reese Leitao was healthy, but redshirting. Cade Brewer was rehabbing from his torn ACL. Kendall Moore was injured during the game. And converted running back Chris Warren III had already left the program.
Limited options last season didn’t just hurt the passing game — it hurt the running game, too.
So it wasn’t a surprise last week when sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger talked emphatically about the importance of having Beck, Brewer, and Leitao all healthy and available.
“It’s been huge,” he said. “The senior leadership that we get from Andrew has been incredible. He’s a great role model for the younger tight ends as well as everybody else. Having that figure take over that room and set the standard for what it should be on every play, him being there has been really great.”
Beck almost didn’t make it to his fifth year in the program. Last season, he clashed with head coach Tom Herman. He almost decided to give up football after fracturing his foot for a second time during preseason camp in 2017 — it now has a plate and two screws in it. A talk with his father was ultimately the difference in Beck’s decision.
“It was kind of corny, I loved it,” Beck said of his conversation with his father, Chris. “He told me the world is trying to crush people’s dreams every single day, don’t be the one to take it away from yourself. That will stick with me forever, and I’ll pass that down one day.”
Now Beck is passing down his lessons from his time at Texas and, hopefully, catching passes once again this season after finding few opportunities in Sterlin Gilbert’s veer-and-shoot offense in 2016.
The 6’4, 255-pounder caught all four of his targets that season for 82 yards and two touchdowns — a remarkable level of efficiency. And though Beck’s best attribute will likely be his blocking ability this season, he could provide effective play on play-action passes or run-pass options down the seam.
The best receiver of the group, however, is Brewer, the sophomore who had nine receptions for 80 yards and two touchdowns during a freshman season that was cut short by injury. A former high school wide receiver, Brewer has some of the best hands on the team and is the most effective player in the group when split out wide.
Leitao, meanwhile, redshirted last season following a two-game suspension for an offseason drug arrest, but eventually earning praise from his coaches for his efforts in practice.
“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.”
A basketball player in high school before opting to focus on football full time, Leitao has a unique combination of physicality and athleticism.
“He runs well and he really catches the ball well,” offensive coordinator Tim 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 younger players in particular benefitted from another offseason in the strength and conditioning program, including redshirt freshman Rob Cummins, who is currently out with a knee injury he suffered during the second scrimmage of preseason camp. There’s no timetable for his return.
“The guys in my class, Reese, Cade, Max, all of them, they got a lot bigger because coach (Yancy) McKnight is so great,” Ehlinger said. “They’re not having to run into 280 pound dudes when they’re weighing 200 pounds. They’ve gotten a lot bigger, and they’ve been huge in advancing the offense. Now that they understand what they need to do on each play and how vital their role is, I think they’ve been doing an excellent job.”
Tight end is certainly a vital role in Herman’s offense — in 2017, the Longhorns head coach called it nearly as complex as the quarterback’s role.
“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.”
In fact, Coachlamons described how important the tight end position is to execute some of the most important blocks on running 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.
So the absence of Beck played a significant role last season in the struggles of the Texas running game — Moore struggled to learn the offense after arriving in August, Brewer lacked the physical strength to execute consistently, and Leitao wasn’t available.
Herman still doesn’t have his prototype on campus yet, that 6’6, 260-pounder who can line up on the line of scrimmage and block a seven-technique defensive end. However, he does have some athleticism and versatility this season.
Most importantly, he has some options.