Tight Ends Coach James Shibest entered spring training not having a clue about what to expect or the talent available at his position.
He left spring training with the feeling he wished for – hope.
How did that happen at a position almost completely devoid of any experienced players? Hard work and preparation, mid-year recruiting and a late personnel move that may pay some solid dividends.
To be honest, the prospects for tight end were, in reality, a huge unknown. So much so that having a lot of confidence in that position was hard to muster before days turned into weeks in spring training and daily productivity surfaced in flashes, at first, and then more consistently toward the end of the month-long session.
The "knowns" in the equation were that senior David Traxler and JUCO signee Gerald Harris both looked the part of big time SEC tight ends and both had outstanding offseasons to the point S&C Coach Don Decker used them as a point of reference for hard work and progress.
The unknowns were just as glaring. Even though Traxler had been at the position a full year after converting from offensive tackle, little was cleared up in the 2007 season as to how he'd fare when the guys in front of him – Robert Lane and Robert Hough – graduated. And other than some JUCO success, Harris was in the same boat.
The questions on both were in the passing game. Speed, hands, route running and coverage recognition all had to be answered.
It was apparent Traxler prepared hard in 7-on-7 drills prior to spring training. He showed soft, reliable hands in spring training and was a frequent target of the quarterbacks in the short to intermediate passing game. While David will never qualify as an Olympic sprinter, he doesn't have speedsters covering him either. Usually a linebacker or strong safety has that duty. Sometimes a defensive end is stuck trying to trail a TE route. He can run with most of those guys and present a 6-6 target that's hard to miss and even harder to position oneself between that big body and the ball. From this viewpoint, David passed the spring test in the passing game. He's always been a solid, if not more, blocker.
Harris started spring slowly, getting caught up in the mental warfare of learning a system and adjusting to the speed of the game on this higher level. By the end of spring, he had punctuated his status with an exclamation point. He showed excellent hands and the ability to stretch the field a bit more than Trax. He lagged behind a little in his run game duties, but he was a willing participant in the inside skirmishes. It wasn't a matter of want-to in the trenches. It was a matter of technique, which he gained slowly but surely during spring. He emerged as a competent blocker, but still an unpolished version of what you are looking for in an ideal world.
Converted DT Ben Benedetto proved to be physical enough to be called upon in three-tight formations and in "heavy" sets. As was the case when he played as an undersized defensive lineman, Benedetto showed the heart and desire necessary to get the job done in certain run game situations.
Cecil Frison still has a lot of work to do in his conversion from defensive end, but he's a game competitor as well. May we suggest a permanent room in the strength and conditioning hotel this summer?
The coaching staff felt another threat in the passing game was necessary at tight end. Enter Fullback Reggie Hicks, who had played some TE last year in a pinch. Reggie responded with some big catches after the switch was made. For now, it would be a stretch to think Reg is going to blow defensive ends off the ball in the run game, but he is athletic enough to be a good second level blocker in some sets. He matches up well with linebackers and safeties.
It was hard to be very optimistic about the tight end position for a variety of reasons heading into spring, but after watching their progress closely, the TEs are on the right track. As coaches are wont to say, "there's still lots of work to do," but it looks as if the raw ability is there and they should be ready to contribute at an acceptable level – maybe beyond – when August rolls around.
One key is their continued pursuit of improving the individual skill sets that each need to work on in the offseason, but Shibest says the proper attitude and desire level is inherent in them to get it done.
What first looked like an area of concern evolved into a position with a lot of promise. That's all you, like Shibest, could hope for in spring.
Tight Ends -
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