CHAMPAIGN - Garrick McGee won't really learn a lot about his tight end group this spring. Because more than half of the tight ends available to him this fall aren't practicing right now.
Probable starter Tyler White is severely limited as he returns from a torn ACL suffered last October. Three freshmen, a few who could make an impact, don't arrive until June. Of the three available scholarship tight ends, two are junior college transfers who made minimal impacts last season as juniors and the other is a redshirt freshman who lacks ideal height.
“You’re just fortunate for the guys you have out there," McGee said. "They’re doing a really good job. They’re practicing hard and learning a lot. You don’t think about the guys that can’t practice. You’re really thankful for the guys who are out there.”
Illinois got little out of its tight ends last season after its top two options, White and H-Back Tim Clary, suffered injuries. The tight ends' marginal impact in the pass game (19 cumulative tight end receptions for 110 yards) was probably a relative improvement over their lack of impact in the run game. Former coach Bill Cubit couldn't get a push in his run game and often had to rely on four-wideout sets inside the red zone -- to little avail. The Illini finished dead last in the Big Ten in redzone offense (72.5 percent scoring rate), about nine percent lower than the second-to-last-place team (Maryland) in the category.
McGee's power-run offense -- like former offensive coordinator Paul Petrino's -- relies even more on tight end contributions.
“They got to be multiple," McGee said. "They got to be able to block and run routes and play fullback. It’s a multiple position."
Only McGee doesn't have Jay Prosch and Evan Wilson in his fullback and tight end group. Though the available tight ends are receiving plenty of reps to prove they can make an impact -- before the reinforcements arrive.
“We’re just taking advantage of the opportunities, just taking all the reps, getting experience with the new coaching staff coming in,” said senior Andrew Davis, who is repping mostly with the first string. “We’re just looking to get in game condition and get ready for the fall, get all the reps we can and learn the offense.”
Opportunity for Davis
Davis arrived at Illinois with expectations, but the rising senior struggled with the transition from Iowa Western Community College to the Big Ten. One of the top-ranked junior college tight ends in the Class of 2015, Davis was expected to make an immediate impact but only finished the 2015 season with five catches for 26 yards and one touchdown.
“I’d say it’s not what I expected," Davis said. "I thought I was going to produce a little more. I learned what I learned. Experience is great. I just got to move on from last season. I’ll just take what I learned. I think it was just a lot of game experience. The Big Ten tempo it’s a big transition from JUCO. That pressure, a different coaching aspect and the game plays a little faster. It’s just nice having that experience going into different atmosphere, having bigger crowds and getting that under my belt. Learning the offense is the last step.”
Davis looks like a possible difference-making receiver, and he had an impressive performance during the scrimmage portion of Saturday's open practice. But Davis looks more like a basketball player than an on-the-line blocker -- though he certainly has shown the willingness to block.
Davis has struggled to add weight. He gained 10-15 pounds last offseason to get to 235 pounds, but he’s still hovering around that number and hoping to bulk up to 240 pounds by the fall. Like former Illini basketball player Mike Tisdale, Davis is on a strict, high-calorie diet. He said he packs extra peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and protein bars to eat throughout the day.
“It was definitely a transition from JUCO where you could just push guys around being whatever size," Davis said. "Come in the Big Ten and guys are a lot bigger. Size is a big thing. Not only technique but size is a big thing.”
Superbacks and reinforcements
Along with Davis, redshirt freshman Caleb Reams (6-foot-3) and Ainslie Johnson (6-foot-2) are receiving a lot of reps. But the short-ish options seem like better fits at the versatile "superback" position McGee employed at Northwestern than as an on-the-line tight end.
"I termed it superback when I was at Northwestern because you have to be able to run routes and be a matchup problem," McGee said. "You also got to be able to block at the point of attack on the ball. You also got to be a fullback sometimes and block linebackers and run out of the backfield. They do a lot of things.”
White will return this fall, and while he's shown inconsistent hands, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound senior is the Illini's best blocker at the position.
This summer, the Illini tight end room will be bolstered by three intriguing prospects thanks to the previous staff's efforts. Andrew Trainer is a massive (6-foot-7, 245-pound) pro-style tight end. Zarrian Holcombe (6-foot-5, 215 pounds), the Illini's highest-ranked offensive prospect in the Class of 2016, could make an immediate impact as a receiver and has the frame to bulk up. Griffin Palmer (6-foot-5, 210 pounds) adds a long frame but likely will need a season to bulk up.
In the meantime, Davis will take advantage of the Illini's current tight spot at tight end.
"Everything is really smooth so far," Davis said. "McGee is awesome. He’s a great leader. He has everyone under control. He just has a good vibe to him. Everybody’s really enjoying it. It’s kind of hard sometimes because the verbage is switched around and everything, but I like the new coaching staff. They’re making everything kind of easy. Everyone’s getting used to it and it’s flowing pretty well.
"Tight ends kind of do everything in this offense, which is great.”