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Report: Texas TE Reese Leitao expected to cross-train on defense

Leitao was a standout defensive end in high school and was recruited on that side of the ball by several schools, including Oklahoma.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns have reached a notable point in developing quality depth under head coach Tom Herman — the ability to turn a tight end into a defender instead of the other way around.

After years of converting defensive ends and linebackers into tight ends, redshirt junior Reese Leitao is expected to cross-train on offense and defense during spring practice, according to Horns247’s Taylor Estes.

A more permanent move would make sense for the 6’4, 245-pounder — after redshirting following a suspension for a high school drug arrest, Leitao played on special teams in 2018 and served as a backup to Cade Brewer until Brewer’s injury, then struggled to make an impact as a receiver. His only catch went for seven yards and came against LSU.

In fact, Leitao provided so little value in that role that Herman was forced into playing more four receiver sets and utilizing a younger player, Jared Wiley, because he provided more versatility despite playing quarterback in 2018 as a senior in high school.

With redshirt sophomore Malcolm Epps moving back to tight end, the position that Texas recruited him at, Leitao was set to drop even further down the depth chart. Following a redshirt season for Brayden Liebrock, the No. 5 tight end in the 2019 class and arguably the best receiving tight end the Longhorns have recruited since Jermichael Finley, it’s possible that Leitao could become even more buried.

Not only does the potential full-time move to defense make sense from the tight end depth chart standpoint, but Leitao was an excellent defensive end in high school, earning first-team All-World area honors there after recording 55 tackles, nine sacks, five pressures, two pass breakups, and two fumble recoveries as a senior. The Oklahoman also named him an All-State honoree at defensive end as the Sooners pursued Leitao as a defensive end.

At Jenks, Leitao flashed some quickness off the ball to beat offensive tackles with speed or use an inside move as a counter if they set too deep. In one clip, Leitao lines up outside the tackle and gets off the ball so quickly that the opposing offensive lineman can’t even really get his hands on him. With a 6’6 wingspan, Leitao has the length to make it difficult for offensive tackles to get into his shoulder pads and should be able to demonstrate an improved punch after his time developing as a blocker and getting stronger.

The hope is that his athleticism could translate better on defense than it did on offense — Leitao posted a 4.47 shuttle and a 33.5-inch vertical leap in high school that were both impressive for a player of his size.

Leitao doesn’t project as a starter on defense even in a best-case scenario, but he does have a more feasible path to becoming a contributor on that side of the ball than he does at tight end right now. And that makes this potential position change a valuable experiment to undertake during spring practice.