#89 Matt Kushner: 6'4 259 - Redshirt Junior
When Anthony Hill went down prior to the start of fall practice, NC State lost perhaps its best offensive playmaker and a sure-fire All-ACC selection. What happened? The Wolfpack ended up getting very good production from its trio of tight ends in Marcus Stone, Matt Kushner, and R.J. Armstrong.
Stone, who moved to tight end after playing much of his career at quarterback, was outstanding. He didn't showcase much as a blocker, but improved in that area as the year went on. However, he displayed great hands and the ability to stretch defenses vertically up the seam. He totaled 36 catches for 452 yards and a touchdown, finishing among the league leaders at the position.
Matt Kushner helped through the air and in the ground game. The redshirt junior finished with 10 catches for 67 yards and a touchdown, and could be used some this year lining up as a fullback or in a h-back position. He's solid in all areas and really has improved after moving to tight end from the defensive side of the ball.
"I think Kush has a chance to have a real good career here," Wolfpack tight ends coach Jim Bridge previously stated. "He is a very, very tough individual. We need to develop consistency with him, but he's a very tough kid. I think he's got a bright future."
The Wolfpack thought they would have back senior R.J. Armstrong, but he is no longer in the program. A strong blocker, it was his seal block that opened the hole for Jamelle Eugene's game-winning touchdown against North Carolina.
POTENTIAL IMPACT NEWCOMERS
#83 Anthony Hill: 6'6 265 - Redshirt Senior (Will Miss Spring Practice)
#84 George Bryan: 6'5 250 - Redshirt Freshman
On paper, Kushner might be the only contributor returning, but when you talk about tight end at NC State in 2008, most will bring up Anthony Hill.
A second-team 2006 All-ACC performer, Hill was the Wolfpack's leading receiver with 45 catches during his junior campaign... 15 more than any other NC State player, a remarkable number for a tight end. He ranked fifth in the ACC with 3.75 receptions per game, and entered the summer of 2007 as the Wolfpack's most experienced player on offense, having seen action in 1,038 snaps for his career.
Most analysts had him rated the top tight end in the conference, and NFL scouts had taken notice. Then in late-July, a diagnostic arthroscopic scope confirmed that Hill had significant damage to his anterior cruciate ligament. Minutes later, Hill was undergoing reconstructive knee surgery.
The result: Hill would miss the 2007 season and before his first official fall practice as NC State's head coach Tom O'Brien had already lost his best offensive player.
"This is a difficult loss for our football team and for Anthony personally," O'Brien said at the time. "But injuries are a part of the game so we need to try to look at the bright side. He still has a red-shirt year so he should be able to have a successful rehabilitation period. The extra semesters will also help him achieve his goal of attaining his degree before pursuing what will hopefully be a long career in the NFL."
Now Hill returns and although he will sit out spring practice to continue rehabbing his knee, indications are he should be 100% before the start of fall practice. At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, he can dominate as a blocker and is extremely effective as a receiver. How good of a blocker is Hill? In 2005, he set a new NC State record for tight ends with eight knockdown blocks in the Wolfpack's victory at Florida State. His presence will give the Wolfpack's inconsistent offense a boost, as he is a legitimate go-to player and a safety valve for whoever is at quarterback.
"The sky is the limit for him," Bridge said of Hill last fall. "I think he needs to rehab and prepare himself to have a great year next year. That's the key.
"I think he's an exceptional tight end, and I think he has a chance to be one of the best in the country. He's strong, he's physical, he plays fast, and he's got a quick body. Regardless of whether or not he had knee surgery, Anthony Hill has a tremendous future. He's that good."
With Hill and Kushner returning, NC State can slowly bring along redshirt freshman George Bryan. Bryan, who hails from Wilmington, North Carolina and enrolled as one of the most heavily-recruited players in the Wolfpack's 2007 class, redshirted and added muscle to his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame.
"George has got a big body, which bodes well to what we're going to do at that position," Bridge said of him prior to fall practice. "George played a wide receiver-type of tight end in high school. He seems to be well-rounded enough to fit in with what we're trying to do at that position. I'm excited to be his coach. I'm excited about his future."
Adding Hill and Bryan to Kushner gives NC State quality depth at the tight end position.
With Hill out of action this spring, Kushner and Bryan are the only scholarship tight ends on the roster and it will be interesting to track Bryan's progress.
Most expect Hill to start once he returns, so the key battle could be between Kushner, a solid veteran, and Bryan, a player blessed with physical gifts that catch your attention, for the Pack's reserve tight end slot.
The key in the spring is always to remain healthy, but I think NC State would like to see Kushner and Bryan continue progressing and possibly one of the walk ons step up and add potential depth.
The Pack will add Hill back in the fall and incoming freshman Mario Carter, but Hill is a senior and Carter is coming off ACL surgery. There is quality on the roster, but overall depth... not so much.
Ideally, Hill comes back 100%, Bryan pans out, and Kushner continues progressing.
This will be a solid position for the Wolfpack. Assuming Bryan performs as some expect he can, NC State will have some options.
Kushner could potentially line up as a fullback in running situations and with the loss of Ced Hickman the Wolfpack coaching staff could explore that scenario.
Having Hill back allows the staff to play around with some different looks along the front and those three should give them the options of utilizing a solid two-tight end system. What most may not realize is just how important the tight end position is to offensive coordinator Dana Bible's pro-style offense.
NC State uses the tight end all over the field, in two-tight end sets, flexed out as a wide receiver, or even as a fullback/h-back lined up in the backfield.
"Our tight ends will play all of the above," said Bridge. "We have even had formations, on first and ten, where we have had four tight ends in the game. Our tight end is the most complete position on our offense.
"We always say, besides our quarterback, that the most critical position for us to be good at is at tight end. They will be obviously block like offensive linemen, they will be fullbacks for us, they will be wide receivers... they will be everything. We will line them up tight, wide, split, in the backfield, on the line of scrimmage... it's kind of a jack-of-all-trades position for us. I believe that is why players who have had success in this offense have proven they can be pro players as well."