Since Jermichael Finely departed early for the NFL Draft following the 2007 season, the Texas Longhorns have struggled to find answers at the tight end position.
Injuries limited potential replacements Blaine Irby and DJ Grant, though they eventually combined for six touchdown catches in 2011, and subsequent years featured a combination of injuries and position changes.
Offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin recruited Geoff Swaim from junior college and he went on to become the last player drafted from Texas at the position in 2015. When MJ McFarland failed to develop, the Longhorns went through long cycles of position changes, moving Greg Daniels, Andrew Beck, Quincy Vasser, and Caleb Bluiett from defense to offense to fill needs.
The highest-ranked signee during that time, Canadian Blake Whiteley from Arizona Western, redshirted and spent two seasons out with injuries before medically retiring in 2016.
Injuries at the position in 2017 forced the staff to move running back Chris Warren to the position, helping precipitate his early departure to the NFL.
Better recruiting — and more importantly, more retention and better injury luck — has vastly improved the outlook for the position in 2021.
Super senior Cade Brewer is back for a fifth season and trimmed down to 243 pounds in an effort to regain some of the athleticism that he lost from his days as a wide receiver at Lake Travis due to weight gain and injuries.
Position coach Jeff Banks calls Brewer a “phenomenal leader” and likes to use him as an H-back who can insert in the running game.
“He’s just a competitor, a winner, definitely the kind of guy you’d like to coach,” Banks said on Wednesday. “Very football smart, high football IQ, comes from Lake Travis, so, kind of what I expected and has lived up to his billing.”
Brewer opted to return for his fifth season on the Forty Acres because he felt like he has some unfinished business.
“I think I had a lot to prove people — I didn’t think I was quite ready to come out and go to the draft, I think one more year of development, and ultimately winning a championship as well, that was really the main reason,” Brewer said this week. “But, you know, here I am ready to roll this season and just ready to get this thing going. I can’t wait.”
Something of a co-starter with Brewer, former high school quarterback Jared Wiley looks poised for his breakthrough season now that he’s been able to more fully acclimate to the position — Banks called him the most improved player since the new staff arrived.
During the spring, the biggest disappointment was the lack of development from Wiley, who made some big plays in the passing game in 2020 with two catches for 63 yards against TCU and two catches for 70 yards against Baylor. In the Orange-White game, however, Wiley struggled in pass protection and hadn’t figured out how to consistently translate his 6’7, 255-pound frame into effective run blocking.
In preseason camp, that’s changed with Wiley emerging as the team’s best in-line tight end, helping to set the edge in the running game and providing a physical presence to complement the offensive line.
“I feel like Jared’s really turned the corner, both from a maturity standpoint and just a physicality standpoint,” Banks said.
With new head coach Steve Sarkisian likely to utilize depth at tight end with more 12 personnel packages, enabled in part by a reduced emphasis on tempo and increased willingness to substitute, the tight end position will play a big role in the 2021 offense. At Alabama, 30 to 40 percent of the snaps last season were in 12 personnel, according to Banks.
So not only could the Longhorns use multiple tight ends at the same time, the quality depth at the position could result in more frequent rotations than in past seasons.
Freshman Gunnar Helm quickly drew praise from Sarkisian and junior running back Roschon Johnson for his contributions early in spring practice after enrolling early. In the spring-ending scrimmage, Helm flashed to start the second half when he was the recipient of a pass from wide receiver Kai Money, the former high school quarterback, that went for 41 yards.
A member of the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll during the spring, Helm developed an advanced understanding of the offense for his age.
“He doesn’t play like a freshman — you don’t even think he’s a freshman — because he has all the answers right on the test,” Banks said. “When you’re quizzing him, when you’re asking them what the calls are, the line calls or what route adjustments to make, he’s able to tell you right off the bat like he’s a sophomore or junior in this offense, so that’s pretty impressive.”
Helm arrived as a strong pass catcher, thanks in part to a basketball background that helped him with his fluidity, and is starting to emerge as a more physical blocker during preseason camp.
Texas also has fellow freshman Juan Davis on the roster, a jumbo athlete at Everman who played multiple roles and had two catches for 24 yards in the Orange-White, including an impressive move in the open field to break a tackle. Davis is still getting used to blocking, but Banks said he isn’t shying away from contact.
More used to contact is the highest-rated 2021 signee for the Longhorns, Ja’Tavion Sanders. A standout receiver and defensive end at Denton Ryan, Sanders is on offense for now and received significant personal attention from Banks during the first several days of practice. In recent days, Sanders has started to come on and may be too talented to leave off the field this season.
Since the Horns will play multiple tight ends together more often, Sarkisian has a chance to use players in more specialized roles. Like Tom Herman’s offense, Sarkisian asks a lot of his tight ends, from putting their hands in the dirt as run blockers to move blocking from the H-back position to splitting out wide as pass catchers or blockers on wide receiver screens. Banks told his players that it’s the toughest position to play on the team.
In 12 personnel, instead of asking the tight end to fill all of those roles, Sarkisian can pair a more developed blocker like Helm with a more athletic pass-catching threat like Davis. Or use Wiley as the in-line tight end and move Brewer around in the backfield.
In the passing game, expect some shot plays for the tight ends, as well — they aren’t just going to be an outlet on check downs.
With several wide receivers banged up and the position as a whole failing to produce at the expected level, the best 11 for Texas may include Brewer and Wiley.
But however Sarkisian and Banks end up using the position, there’s no question that Banks is lucky to inherit the deepest and most talented group of tight ends the Longhorns have had at any point in the last two decades.