BF.C Fall Camp Preview: TIGHT END/H-BACK

CORVALLIS – What's the scoop on the Oregon State tight ends/h-backs headed into fall camp? As it turns out, there's a ton to talk about, including this little nugget -- the position figures to be quietly key to so much of what the Beavs want to accomplish in 2012 on offense.

Snapshot/Stats:
Kellen Clute: (6-4, 250) Redshirt freshman- Suffered a knee energy last fall during the Beavs second scrimmage and did not make a full return until late in the 2011 season.

Connor Hamlett: (6-7, 259) Sophomore standing- Did not see much play last season with the exception of special teams and occasionally coming in to set blocks as one of two healthy tight ends OSU had on the roster. Expected to land the starting H-Back (essentially the second string tight end) spot.

Tyler Perry: (6-4, 256) Sophomore standing- Did not record any statistics last season; suffered a knee injury that left him on the bench for the first four games of 2011. Officially played in two games; against Stanford and Arizona. He too will be vying for the H-Back position during fall.

Colby Prince: (6-5, 257) Senior standing- Returning starter at the TE position, played in all 12 games last season, starting 11. Recorded 12 receptions for 66 yards, no touchdowns.

Caleb Smith- (6-6, 264) Freshman- played well during spring ball; could look to make an immediate impact in the TE faction.

The Good: OSU will be working with some big, strong tight ends this fall. The group demonstrated solid command of their blocks and did manage to run a few routes pretty well, despite inexperience and what appeared to be a general lack of focus on the corps for the bulk of spring ball.

The true freshman Smith generated the most buzz among fans this spring but Prince looked the most capable and game-ready guy on the roster at the tight end position this spring, and looks poised to return as the starter. The senior has soft hands and a big frame – which makes for an obvious target for Sean Mannion. Prince also has the most experience playing in the Beavs' offense – he was the only player to record any noteworthy statistics last season as one of two healthy tight ends on Mike Riley's roster.

Now that there are no lack of healthy tight ends, it gives Riley options. Clute and Prince were the quickest of the five this spring, and Prince displayed improved blocking ability. However, Smith and Hamlett showed they were more prepared to be physical, especially while blocking the run in the open field.

And the run has to be a bigger factor for OSU this year than the pass, both in terms of game plan and at TE with the talent at receiver. As result, the attributes required of a starting tight end shift slightly.

If a healthy and productive crew of running backs can be sustained throughout the fall, OSU will actually be able to incorporate the play-action with more frequency (and success). Many play-action sets are highly dependent on the tight end and H-Back feigning blocks and cutting into the open field for quick 10-13 yard gains. Last year, the run game was a mess and as a result, Mannion's ability to run a convincing play-action suffered. Making sure that's not the case again this season is a top priority for OSU.

Further installment of Malcolm Agnew and Storm Woods within Riley's arsenal can do wonders to open up plays to tight ends, an often underrated component of many collegiate offenses. The tight end corps has something working for it in that opposing defenses probably aren't expecting them to play a huge role in offensive production (and they didn't last year). As a result, the tight ends have the opportunity to surprise some defensive coordinators in the pass game early on in the season, if Riley wants to go that way.

The Bad: With the exception of Prince, only one of the tight ends on the roster (Perry) has had any real game experience at the position when it comes to the college level. This can be a real cause for concern, especially if Riley is hoping to accrue more success in the run game. Dual tight end sets are often vital in accomplishing sweeps, pitches, and occasionally screens - Hamlett is a decent blocker but his best work has been on special teams and he'll need some work during the fall if he is to make a positive impact during the 2012 season.

Staying healthy is key- Clute and Perry both missed a lot of valuable game and practice time due to knee injuries.

Perry is a fair option as the No. 2 tight end as well, but he has struggled with staying healthy in the past. He had a solid spring game with four receptions totaling 79 yards -- but the overall spring session showed Perry needs more polish in both run and pass blocking.

All in all, this group of tight ends seems like they are better suited for helping in the run game. The roster doesn't really appear to have that perfectly well rounded end that can block a defensive end one play and sneak out into the flat another. Overall, there is a lack of experience and consistency at the position- which begs the question- does it bode well for the OSU offense if their only returning starter at tight end only amassed 12 receptions for 66 yards last season?

Keep your eyes peeled: Riley desperately wants to run the ball and much more effectively that last year. If the questions on the o-line continue on through fall camp, one of the best ways to help accomplish that will be dual (and perhaps frequent), mixed up enough to keep defenses off balance. Dual tights will prove more effective against some teams (i.e. USC) than others (Oregon), but all in all, productive work by two tights will certainly aid in opening up holes into the secondary for the running backs and by extension, play action passes will become more effective.

The Question: What attributes will Riley value more when it comes time to put together the final depth chart - Speed and soft hands or stronger blocking ability combined with a bigger/taller target? Prince likely heads into fall camp as the starter, as he will be returning for his senior season. But the fall camp session can change a lot of perceptions, and at least two primary tight ends are sure to play a substantial role in the success of the run game (where girth could take precedence over speed).

Intangibles and Final Thoughts: Tight end offers plenty of intrigue this fall camp, and it is quite possible that the "starters" will fluctuate often based on the offensive scheme and whether or not the running game is proving successful.

Prince is arguably not the best option when it comes to blocking. Hamlett and the true freshman Smith displayed the most consistent success holding the lines this spring, and are both a bit bigger than Prince. Hamlett and Smith present the skills to block a gamut of defensive linemen, but lacked the lateral speed and agility to make a big impact in the pass game. The main TE/H-back issue facing Riley in 2012 is that he has three guys on the roster that if molded together, would make the perfect tight end - but he doesn't have that.

That is not to say that a little diversity at the position won't benefit the offense in the end. Fresh legs are always a good thing, and the tight end job is a strenuous one. Think about it - these guys need to have the strength and blocking ability of a tackle mixed with the speed, agility and hands of a wideout. That's a rare athlete.

If the offensive line continues to have issues, the importance of a solid blocking tight end will increase ten-fold. Look for the prospect of diminished depth at the O-line to affect Riley's ultimate decision as to who slots at No.1 and who slots at No.2 at the end of the fall.

Predictions: Prince is possibly Riley's best overall bet at the tight end spot right now- so look for him to get a lot of work during the fall with every opportunity to remain No. 1 when fall camp comes to a close. At H-Back, look for Hamlett as the main contender to hold that position and perhaps even fill in at No.1 if the situation calls for it. Smith, in his true freshman season, is a solid No.3.

Prince - 20 receptions for about 175 yards and one touchdown.
Hamlett - 13 receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown.
Smith - May be a freshman but shows potential to make an immediate impact: Four receptions for 27 yards, no touchdowns.


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