Position Primer: Illini Tight Ends

Illini Inquirer breaks down the 2016 Illini tight end depth chart and answers burning questions about the position

Illini Inquirer is breaking down one Illini football position group per day, leading up to the start of  Illinois training camp on Thursday, Aug. 4.

July 27 - Illini quarterbacks

July 28 - Illini running backs

July 29 - Illini wide receivers

Today - Illini tight ends


The depth chart

Starters

http://www.scout.com/player/169815-tyler-white?s=169

Year: Senior

Stats: Two career starts; seven career receptions for 63 yards, 3 TDs

Analysis: Coming off an ACL tear that cost him six games last season, Tyler White returns as the Illini's best run-blocking tight end -- by far. The Illini missed the big and powerful tight end in their short-yardage and red-zone packages as they finished dead last in the Big Ten in red-zone offense (72.5 percent, almost nine percentage points below the No. 13 team). White hasn't yet proved to be a reliable option in the passing game outside of the red zone (three of his seven career catches are touchdowns).

http://www.scout.com/player/188147-andrew-davis?s=169

Year: Senior

Stats: Five catches, 26 yards, one TD last season

Analysis: The lanky, athletic Andrew Davis looked overwhelmed in his first season at the Division I level, let alone the Big Ten. The former junior-college tight end wasn't strong enough to handle the physicality of the Big Ten. Davis has struggled to gain weight -- though he's inhaled a lot of calories -- but he had a strong spring. Davis is a willing blocker, but he must continue to add strength. He is a nice complement to White though. He's tall, showed good hands during the spring and is a very good option in the seam against smaller defenders. You just wish you could put White's frame on Davis' ability.

Backups

http://www.scout.com/player/167857-caleb-reams?s=169

Year: Redshirt freshman

Stats: Has not played a game

Analysis: Reams is a bit undersized for an on-the-line tight end, but he has the physical makeup to play the "superback" or H-Back role in Garrick McGee's offense. The former three-star recruit has soft hands and good athleticism. Now, he must prove himself as a blocker. But he could be a nice weapon out of the backfield.

http://www.scout.com/player/188804-ainslie-johnson?s=169

Year: Senior

Stats: Five games played; one catch, two yards

Analysis: Despite so many injuries at the tight end positions last year, former junior-college player Ainslie Johnson struggled to get on the field. He bulked up a bit too much last winter and lost the athleticism that made him an intriguing prospect. He's short, so he'll likely have to fight for playing time at superback (along with Reams and Nate Echard) and on special teams.

http://www.scout.com/player/196303-zarrian-holcombe?s=169

Year: True freshman

Analysis: The top-ranked offensive recruit in the Illini's Class of 2016, Zarrian Holcombe has the chance to play early. He's tall (6-foot-6), athletic and a willing blocker. While his good hands make him an instant receiving threat, the former Texas A&M commit must bulk up 15-25 pounds the next few years if he is going to play tight end.

http://www.scout.com/player/197396-andrew-trainer?s=169

Year: True freshman

Analysis: Andrew Trainer is a massive young man. The Illini list him at 6-foot-8, 245 pounds. The former Virginia recruit has a power-forward frame. He must continue to add strength, but he looks like a bigger version of Tyler White. He's not very fast but has some athleticism and has flashed solid hands at times. He's a good future complement to Holcombe.

http://www.scout.com/player/194983-griffin-palmer?s=169

Year: True freshman

Analysis: If Trainer looks like a power forward, Palmer looks like a small forward. He must add 20-30 pounds to his lanky frame. He is a solid prospect, however, because he's a good athlete and pass-catcher. It'll just take time for him to be Big Ten-ready.

Burning questions

1. How will McGee use tight ends?

Bill Cubit wanted to use his tight ends last season. He just didn't have many available. His two best options -- White and H-Back Tim Clary -- sat out most of last Big Ten season with injuries, so the Illini basically were without their short-yardage packages. White is back, Reams is available and the Illini add three freshmen to the roster. But there still aren't very good options. Honestly, tight end was the Illini's worst offensive position last year and has major questions entering 2016.

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 this spring. "They got to be able to block and run routes and play fullback. It’s a multiple position."

McGee also uses a "superback" position in the mold of former Northwestern H-Back Dan Vitale or even former Illini fullback Jay Prosch. The Illini don't seem to have a player who perfectly first that role, but fullback Nate Echard and Reams seemingly will get the first crack at it.

"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.”

2. Will the freshmen play?

Ideally, none of the three incoming freshmen -- Holcombe, Trainer and Palmer -- will have to play. All need to add strength to be legit Big Ten blockers. None are coming in as put together as former Illini Matt LaCosse, and even LaCosse played too few snaps as a true freshman to have justified burning his redshirt. Holcombe seems to have the most Big Ten ready skills as a receiver. But if Illinois is only going to use him as a split-wide receiver, wouldn't they rather just play one of the receivers (like Dominic Thieman) out there? Trainer has a good frame but must add strength. He likely only would play if White suffers an injury. Palmer simply isn't ready. Kudos to Cubit's staff though for addressing a huge long-term need on the roster with some solid prospects. But, ideally, Illinois won't need them in the short term.


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