Mission Impossible: Finding Tight Ends

With Lone Star State high schools spreading it out, Texas must scrape to find workable options at tight end.

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." — Aristotle.

Why lead off a story about the state of Texas's dearth of tight ends and glut of wide receivers with a quote from an ancient Greek philosopher? Because the message is apt — the state of Texas used to produce a number of talented tight ends, with the in-state schools taking advantage of that positional boon. Just look a few years back in 2005, and both Texas and Texas A&M grabbed Jermichael Finley and Martellus Bennett in the same class.

But we are what we repeatedly do, and as the state's offenses began to shift from run-heavy wishbones and power-Is around the turn of the century, teams began spreading defenses out and throwing the ball. The takeaway? Pretty quickly, it became difficult to find what I call auxiliary positions: fullbacks and tight ends. A quick glance over the Texas roster reveals two fullbacks — Alex De La Torre and Chet Moss — who used to play linebacker. And you'd probably have to go all the way back to Mike Jones, a John Makovic recruit in the Class of 1997 out of San Antonio Marshall, to find a productive Longhorn tight end who actually played the position at a Texas high school as a senior. Finley, David Thomas and D.J. Grant were all wide receivers in high school, while Bo Scaife (Colorado) and Blaine Irby (California) were both out-of-staters.

Brock Edwards played tight end and fullback his first couple of years in high school before shifting to tailback at Fort Worth Christian. So even with a player who had already played some tight end, Texas coaches faced some projection.

"You're not able to find many fullbacks, and you're not able to find tight ends," said Texas coach Mack Brown. "They're a thing of the past. And the NFL can't find them either. And the NFL scouts are dying to find somebody. They're taking big tailbacks or defensive ends and trying to make them tight ends. San Diego takes [Antonio] Gates, a basketball player, to make him a tight end. But I really believe that that's a factor for all of us. We are having so much trouble finding the right tight ends."

Even many high schools are only paying lip-service to the position. In fact, many high school teams have gone to simply trotting out their elite defensive linemen when there's a need at that spot. Arguably the top three defensive linemen in the 2012 class: Denton Ryan's Mario Edwards Jr. (Florida State), Brenham's Malcom Brown (Texas) and San Antonio Sam Houston's Javonte Magee (Baylor) all played some tight end their senior years of high school. All were over 260 pounds, with Brown and Edwards coming in at 280-plus.

1) Spread it out

Texas has long had a historic link with black gold, with oil drillers looking for the perfect spot to make their fortunes. And what happens when the oil dries up? It's time to pack things up and look for newer, more fertile, territory. And in that way, searching the state of Texas for tight ends has become similar. The wells of tight end talent have largely dried up, with prospective talent-seekers looking to other regions, like the midwest and Big 10 country, to get their fix.

Ask any coach, high school or college, for the main reason — the culprit, if you will — behind the tight end shortage, and you're likely to get a two-word villain: the spread. An offense that was easy to teach, difficult to defend and one that naturally lent itself to overcoming talent deficiencies, especially in the trenches, the spread was the perfect answer for an out-manned high school team. But then, it became more. Teams with explosive playmakers found that they could extend their advantage by placing those players in space. Teams with big offensive lines found that they didn't have to run through eight- or nine-man boxes and soon just about everybody was tinkering with the offense, trying to find how it suited them.

The same process happened in college, with outliers like Texas Tech and Kansas seeking to spread teams out, eventually followed by the Big 12's more talented teams, like Texas. Oklahoma went through an interesting process all its own. Coming out of the John Blake era, the Sooners were under-talented, at least for a typical Oklahoma team. So they ran the spread, first under Mike Leach and then under Mark Mangino, winning a national title in the process. As the talent caught up — and they landed a great back in Adrian Peterson — the Sooners subtly shifted out of the spread, only to return to press its advantages with Sam Bradford and Landry Jones at the helm.

Head out to a Lake Travis practice sometime, and if you're lucky, and stay a little bit later, you might just get to see the grade-schoolers practice. And if you aren't used to it, you might be surprised at what you see: 10-year-olds running a spread offense. The point? You now have a whole new generation of players who are used to slingin' the ball out of the shotgun and utilizing space.*

* Ironically enough, Lake Travis had its own tight end prospect a couple of years ago in Griffin Gilbert. But Gilbert, as with many spread players, played more of a wide receiver-like role.

What does that mean for the tight end position? It meant that those players were no-longer necessary. Teams didn't need a 6-foot-4, 230-pound tight end to set the edge in the running game … in-fact, the same player at 15-pounds lighter became a nasty receiving target. A player who played at 15-20 pounds heavier could get lumped into an offensive line group, potentially as a left tackle.

That's not to say that the tight end position was completely dead. But certainly, with spread offenses, it went on life support.

2) Filling needs

Football, by its nature, is a reactive game. The zone blitz happened as a result of quick-passing attacks that were picking defenses apart bit-by-bit. The emphasis on left tackles popped up after Lawrence Taylor showed the Washington Redskins just how quickly he could end the career of a team's top investment. And around we go.

And while the spread has dinged the dog out of trying to get to the quarterback with its emphasis on quick throws and getting the ball out quickly, the best way to beat it remains a tried-and-true philosophy — and an easier said than done one — for stopping just about any football offense: win the battle up front. That meant that while teams no longer found an offensive need for the 6-4 230-pounder running a 4.7 in the spread offense, defenses could plug that player in as a defensive end to try and slow the spread down. The most common defensive strategy for dealing with passing attacks is to put the quarterback on his keester, and that means that a player of that size and athleticism level can still have tremendous value as a pass-rusher.

But perhaps the most key word there is "that size," because so many potential tight ends simply don't reach that size in high school. It's of more value to those players to keep their weight 15-20 pounds lighter and play as a wide receiver. Thomas and Finley were both 210-pound type guys in high school, as was Miles Onyegbule, whom the Longhorns brought in as a receiver before his weight pushed him into tight end range. M.J. McFarland was bigger, but still played wide receiver at the high school level.

Of course, the issue there is the same issue that the Longhorns have had with McFarland: when players spend their careers as outside players, they often have to learn not just the technique associated with blocking down and trying to handle larger players in the run game, but also the mentality and physicality required for said blocking.

So wide receiver and defensive end have been the biggest positions to see a boom with former tight end types. But on a much lighter scale, some potential tight ends — typically larger ones — have also found their way to the left tackle spot. When the 6-4 230-pound guy becomes 245 or 250 pounds at the high school level, that's typically a move that he's going to have to make, unless he's an absurd athlete at that size.

3) Where to go from here

The short answer? Look for players at the above positions that could translate into a tight end in college. The shorter answer? Utilize an offensive system that isn't as reliant on tight ends. The shortest answer? When there's an elite tight end in the class, by all means, GRAB HIM.

Of course, that's easier said than done. The Longhorns had a long-time commitment from Belton tight end Durham Smythe in 2013, who was incredibly highly recruited. Eventually, he reopened his recruitment and signed with Notre Dame. In 2014, there aren't really any elite tight ends, with arguably the state's best tight end, Manvel's Koda Martin, headed to Texas A&M to play offensive tackle.

Even in 2015, which saw an increase in talent at the position, the top two players are already committed, nearly two years out from when they'll be asked to sign. Texas offered Clear Lake product Jordan Davis, who came to the Longhorns' summer camp and ran 4.72 in the 40-yard dash, but Davis committed to play in College Station shortly thereafter. And Allen star Bobby Evans was an Oklahoma legacy and quickly committed to the Sooners, despite Texas interest.

Just how tough is competition for tight ends in-state? The top 2016 player at the position — remember, we're talking players who just finished their freshman seasons of high school — is Kaden Smith of Flower Mound Marcus. He already has offers from Alabama and Clemson. He had 14 catches as a freshman.

The reality of the situation is that Texas will likely have to do three things to fill up its stable of tight ends. First, the Longhorns will likely have to move outside of the state to find tight end targets. Texas has already shown flashes of this, including 2014 offer Tyler Luatua. Second, the Longhorns will likely have to continue to pound the pavement at junior colleges for well-developed prospects. Texas signed Geoff Swaim in the 2013 class and currently has a commitment from John Thomas in 2014. Expect that to continue to be a trend, as there isn't as much projection involved and the Longhorns would be able to get a player who is physically ready to play.

And of course, the third is to continue to find those bigger wide receivers, like Miles Onyegbule, with the frames to bulk up. Could Texas have found someone like that in 2014 commitment Garrett Gray? Perhaps. But it's no secret that the state is saturated with wide receivers … 12 of the players listed on the Biletnikoff Watch List are from Texas, and countless other top receivers began their careers in the Lone Star State.

It's easy to find the wideouts, as they appear to be growing on trees. That's one positive effect of the growing spread offense influence. Finding the ones that can grow into tight ends — that's the problem.

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