NORMAN, Okla. — The Sooners go into spring practice looking to re-introduce the tight end position into the offense. No position suffered more from graduation in 2003 than the loss of Trent Smith at tight end. The Sooners never found a comparable answer in 2003 and eventually went with senior Lance Donley because of his experience and consistency.
However, Donley was solid at best and never came close to becoming the receiving threat that Smith was throughout his career. That forced the Sooners to go almost exclusively to their wide receivers leaving out what has always been a big part of the offense during the Bob Stoops era.
"Last year we just didn't have the receiving threat that we needed to really include the tight end position on the passing game," said tight end coach Kevin Sumlin. "It didn't hurt my feelings that we never threw to the tight end, because I agreed to the decision last year. We didn't have anybody step up last year at tight end that could be counted upon in the passing game to become a real threat. Then when you have guys like Mark Clayton and Brandon Jones emerge at wide receiver it just makes sense to try to get the ball to them.
"Which footballs are you going to take away from them to give to the tight ends? If you are trying to get the ball into the hands of players that can make plays for you then that was out wide receivers last year. Hopefully, this spring we can find a couple of guys that can make some plays at tight end so we can incorporate the tight end back in the offense."
Donley has graduated and junior Chris Chester is going to move inside to work primarily with the offensive guards. That leaves junior James Moses and two rookies, redshirt freshman Joe Jon Finley and junior Willie Roberts to take over the position.
"The one thing that is going to be obvious from the beginning is that the position is wide open," said Sumlin. "Lance started the last 12 games of the year and had a pretty solid season. What we are looking for is the same kind of consistency that Lance brought, but probably will ask for a little more ability to get the ball in space in the passing game, while still being an effective blocker. I think we are going to have a pretty good race."
The key question is whether or not anybody has an edge going into the spring?
"Bubba Moses has a little more experience and obviously more experience than anybody else at the position," Sumlin said. "Bubba needs to become more consistent for us in all areas. I look for freshman Joe Jon Finley and Willie Roberts to really come on. The key to those two guys is how far they have come during our offseason program. Both have managed to put on some weight, both have worked hard and I am pleased with that. Are they as big as we need them to be? No. However, they have made some progress. We are pretty confident both players can be pass receiving threats for us, but the jury is still out on whether they can be pure tight ends for us and block at the point of attack. I guess we will find out in a few days."
"Chris Chester played for us quite a bit in short-yardage situations this year and he has to continue to develop," Sumlin continued. "In fact, he will probably get more work in the offensive line this spring than at tight end, but we can always pull him back if we need a more physical presence at tight end.
"I think the real race is really going to be who develops among the newcomers last year between Joe Jon and Willie. Throw Bubba in that mix and we will see how much progress they have really made. Both Finley and Roberts worked with the varsity and scout team a year ago, and they both bring superior athletic ability to the position."
While the question on both Finley and Roberts is whether they can handle the rigorous blocking requirements at the point of attack, there seems to be no questions about their ability to excel in the Sooners passing game.
"What Joe Jon brings is a very athletic-receiver type, who is not going to weigh as much as the other guys," said Sumlin. "Remember that Joe Jon has been a quarterback and he has to work on the fundamentals of the position and continue to work in the weight room. The same goes for Willie as he is gifted as well. I think the transition from junior college to major college football was a little difficult for him. He has really started to grasp what we are really trying to do where as a program and I think he is on the right track"
Moses could make all this a moot point. Moses has the best combination of receiving skills and blocking ability up front, but he just hasn't put it all together thus far in his career at OU. He goes into the spring the No. 1 tight end, but he will have to start living up to his enormous ability to hold onto the job.
"He just needs to be more consistent," said Sumlin. "This is the same thing that we said in the fall and in the spring last year. What is important to us is what are we going to be able to count on every day? Bubba has talent and some days he is exceptional, and then there are other days he struggles with some basic fundamentals. What he needs to do is work at being a consistent player and work to give us some liability at the position. He has some experience at the position, he has talent, he knows what he should do and he has big game experience. What he needs to do is to become more consistent and give us a guy that we can count on and a guy who we know what we are going to get out of him every week."
The Sooners would like to find one tight end among Moses, Finley or Roberts than can play all the time and do all the things they require out of a tight end. Any more that is to be Superman and be a super receiver if they need to split him out, or to be a glorified offensive tackle and super blocker at tight end. They don't want to alternate tight ends for certain situations if they can help it. In other words, they are looking for another Trent Smith, and there is no guarantee of that this spring.
Spring Preview: Tight End
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