AUSTIN, Texas — During head coach Tom Herman’s first preseason camp two years ago, Texas Longhorns tight end Andrew Beck was asked if things couldn’t get any worse at the position. “That is very true,” Beck replied.
Except they could. And did, with a quickness.
Within two weeks of making that proclamation, Texas was without its starting tight end for the entire season when Beck suffered a broken foot, forcing junior Garrett Gray into the starting lineup. Gray sustained an injury in the second game and never played again for the Longhorns.
Next up was Cade Brewer, a freshman generously listed at 230 pounds who had been playing wide receiver for Lake Travis only months before. After Brewer suffered a season-ending injury of his own, Texas was left with graduate transfer Kendall Moore and had to move Chris Warren III to H-back, a decision that ultimately contributed to his departure from the program.
Now under the tutelage of former offensive line coach Derek Warehime, the position is finally emerging from the rash of attrition, injuries, and generally recruiting malfeasance that cratered it for years.
Beyond the overall attention to detail from the current coaching staff in rebuilding the entire program, it was especially necessary at tight end because the position plays such a big role in Herman’s pro-spread offense and demands an incredibly diverse skill set.
“This position is very unique — at times you’ve got to be a tackle, at times you’ve got to be a guard, at times you’ve got to be a fullback, at times you’ve got to be a wide receiver,” Warehime said last week. “You’ve got to pass block, run block, so on and so forth. In order to play this position, you’ve got to be smart, tough, and dependable. Your skill set has to be off the charts in order to stay in the game the whole time.”
As a fifth-year senior in 2018, Beck was a multi-year captain who was recruited by Mack Brown and matured through two coaching changes and numerous offensive systems. He was smart, tough, and dependable. Now it’s finally necessary to replace Beck and his myriad contributions to the Texas football program.
“As a position group we had this discussion last night,” Warehime said. “Andrew was a very intelligent player, very disciplined player. Because of his physicality and because of his athleticism, he could get away with lack of technique and fundamentals at times because he could make up for it with his strain, his strength, and his body.
“Whereas, where we’re at physically with the guys we have playing the tight end position right now, we have got to be technique and fundamentally sound. So it’s noticeable if you don’t take the proper steps, it’s noticeable if the hat placement is poor, it’s noticeable if our pad level is poor from a blocking perspective.”
So that’s the challenge for Brewer, who is now a junior and listed at 250 pounds, but mostly played on special teams last season as he continued to recover from the knee injury that ended his 2017 campaign. Fortunately for Brewer, he can make up for some deficiencies in technique and fundamentals as a blocker because he’s a better receiver than Beck.
“Same thing that you saw from him at Lake Travis,” Warehime said when asked about Brewer’s receiving skills. “His ball skills are as good as anybody we have in the program. Route running ability is better than it ever has been since he’s been here because he’s stronger. He missed an entire offseason recovering from a knee his freshman year, so he’s finally got up with strength through the summer and with the offseason. He’s playing a high level of football right now. He’s running really well.”
As a result of the strength and conditioning work with Yancy McKnight, Brewer isn’t just moving as well as he was before his knee injury — he’s moving better, according to Warehime.
Brewer’s back up is redshirt sophomore Reese Leitao, who also appeared on special teams last season. Heading into his third season in the program, he’s finally positioned to contribute, but because of the two freshmen and the fact he hasn’t really played, there’s not a lot of buzz surrounding Leitao and his potential contributions.
The most prototypical player at the position is freshman Jared Wiley, who stands 6’7 and started preseason camp at 258 pounds after arriving in Austin from Temple in January between 220 and 225 pounds.
“He’s moving well, he’s learning how the play the position from a technique and fundamental standpoint,” Warehime said last week. “He’s learning how to run routes and carry that body weight, but he’s very hard on himself and his technique and fundamental development has come a long way. He’s done a nice job, especially in the last few days, so I’m pleased with his progress.”
During the spring, the biggest concern that emerged with Wiley were his hands — he most played quarterback at Temple, so there wasn’t much film on him catching passes and he dropped his first two targets in the Orange-White game.
“The drops in the spring, in my opinion, were butterflies inside of him playing his first real college football game as a Texas Longhorn inside that stadium in front of an audience,” Warehime told Burnt Orange Nation. “His hands have been great during training camp. Route running, extending his hands to use his big body to go up and get the football whenever it’s contested — he’s doing a good job.”
The other signee in the class is Arizona product Brayden Liebrock, an Arizona product who was ranked as the nation’s No. 5 tight end in the 2019 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Warehime called him a great addition and noted his prototypical height as well — between 6’4.5 and 6’5 and currently carrying 235 to 240 pounds.
“Really intelligent player,” Warehime said. “Really great route runner, really phenomenal hands, and has done a good job of learning the technique and fundamentals that go along with playing the position.”
Over the years of recruiting at the position, it’s possible, if not likely, that Liebrock is a better, more crisp route runner than any of the pure tight ends Texas has recruited in the last decade.
“It’s very unusual,” Warehime told Burnt Orange Nation. “Here’s where it’s the most unusual — it’s the most unusual to be able to take a guy that has that type of skill set when it comes to running routes and great hands and transitioning to receive the football and tuck it to get vertical and be able to apply the run-blocking and pass-blocking fundamentals and techniques against the match ups that he sees every day in practice. He plays against really good players in practice. So for him to be able to do both of those things at a high level — and still be so far away from his complete physical development — is really good.”
The future is clearly bright for the current tight end group on the Forty Acres, but the question is whether Brewer can immediately replace Beck’s production and leadership. While that’s going to be difficult, there’s no question that Brewer’s ball skills will allow him to make plays this year that Beck wasn’t able to make in the past.