When Texas coach Mack Brown announced that he wanted the Longhorns to find their roots in the power running game, there were three problems. First, Texas didn't quite have the offensive line that was up to that challenge just yet. Second, Texas didn't have the backs (a year later, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron came, and a year after that, Johnathan Gray).
But one of the most important factors was that the Longhorns lacked the tight ends to set the edge in the running game. Look at the Oklahoma game, circa 2011, for proof … for all the haranguing the Texas offensive line received for that contest, just as big a factor was the fact that the Longhorns were destroyed on the edge.
Just two weeks later, Bryan Harsin decided the situation was dire enough that he moved an offensive tackle, Luke Poehlmann, to the No. 2 tight end spot to try and generate push. It did just that, but also pretty obviously tipped off the defense — Poehlmann wasn't exactly a threat to go out and catch a pass.
That need was also in mind when Texas elected to pursue Geoff Swaim, a block-first, block-second tight end from Butte College, in last year's recruiting class. Swaim didn't catch many passes at Butte, but was renowned for his blocking ability.
And it might have been undersold a bit. Check this out:
Gray scores a touchdown by finding a cut-back lane, but you notice that the run was supposed to follow Swaim, who absolutely washes the linebacker out of the play while operating from more of a fullback position. Swaim's versatility has a blocker has allowed Texas to use him in several roles, as a traditional fullback, as an H-back just off the line and as a more traditional tight end. And he's shown the ability to generate tremendous movement with his power, while also displaying the great feet necessary to make blocks on the move and in space.
Swaim has also been a better receiver than the Longhorns thought, though with just two catches for 12 yards, he hasn't made a big impact there.
Neither has Greg Daniels, who has one catch for 13 yards. Together, those three snags for 25 yards represents the entire receiving contribution of the group to the wide receiving corps. But like Swaim, Daniels has helped out as a blocker. The former defensive lineman, who has started one game this year (Swaim has three starts) is physical at the point of attack, and it isn't unusual to see Texas deploy both of those two together, with Daniels often with his hand on the ground and Swaim standing up or in motion.
The disappointing part of this group has been that M.J. McFarland has been unable to follow up on the flashes he showed as a redshirt freshman. McFarland hasn't started a game this year, and even logged a "Did Not Play" against Iowa State, just a year after the 6-foot-6 target started four games, making eight catches for 125 yards (15.6 yards per catch) and a touchdown. The hope was that McFarland would lend a big, athletic target down the seam to trouble defenses in passing situations, adding an extra weapon to the Longhorns' spread sets.* It's also a role that former receiver Miles Onyegbule could have filled, if he could stay healthy and move up the depth chart. Onyegbule missed the first five games of the season to injury, but he earned offensive scout team player of the week the week leading up to the Oklahoma game.
* I'm not saying that McFarland is this good, but take a look at what Texas Tech is doing with Jace Amaro, for reference. Amaro has added an extra dimension to what Tech has typically done out of the spread, catching 56 passes (that's exactly eight per game) for 742 yards (second overall in the Big 12) and three touchdowns. He's been a bear on third downs, and provided an outstanding security blanket for the true freshman duo of quarterbacks that Texas Tech has had to roll out.
Obviously, nobody's career is over until it's over … just two years ago, Greg Daniels was a player without a natural position, and somebody who didn't appear likely to become a regular contributor. McFarland isn't even in that situation — he doesn't need a position switch, as Daniels did — but it would be nice to see him reach his potential. To do so, he'll have to continue to develop as a run blocker. Simply put, it's hard to play a tight end who doesn't represent a threat in that phase of the game … indeed, Swaim has found the field by being an OK pass-catching threat but a boffo run blocker, the opposite of McFarland's skill set.
You hate to keep bringing this up (and I should probably stop), but it's also why Durham Smythe was such an important recruit out of Belton last year. Smythe had the potential to be the every-down tight end that Texas lacked, somebody capable of being an excellent in-line blocker while also stressing the defense in the passing game.
Alas, Smythe is in South Bend, but Texas has been able to find effectiveness at the position in the run game — something the Longhorns lacked when trying to convert to a more powerful rushing attack — which is an overall positive for this group. That Swaim and Daniels still have another year left, and McFarland has two more years to improve, is certainly a positive. This group's contributions haven't really shown up on the stat sheet, but from a blocking standpoint, they've stood out on tape.