Increased role

There is a running joke inside the Longhorns tight ends room that trapped within them are willing-and-able receivers.

“These guys are 6-4, 6-5 and 240-250 pounds, but there is a receiver that is trying to get out of that body,” Texas tight ends coach Bruce Chambers said. “There is a receiver inside there.”

If there is then now would be a good time to highlight those abilities because with how little they’ve been used in the passing game over the last few seasons there is more laughter directed at them than with them.

You’d have to direct your memory to the 2006 and 2007 seasons to find Texas’ last true difference-maker at the position in Jermichael Finley. He caught 76 passes for 947 yards and five touchdowns in two years on the 40 Acres before leaving for the NFL.

He replaced the last truly great tight end UT had in David Thomas, who was part flytrap, part Vince Young security blanket in 2005 with the way he snatched everything thrown his way.

That included the national championship victory over USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl when Thomas caught 10 receptions for 88 yards. He finished the season with a team-high 50 receptions for 613 yards (second on team) and five touchdowns (tied for first).

Since Thomas and Finley’s departure, though, Texas has struggled mightily to find a true threat in the passing game from the position.

Blaine Irby was supposed to be that guy when he joined the program in 2007 out of Camarillo (Calif.) St. Bonaventure. But a gruesome knee injury during his sophomore season in 2008 kept him off the field for two full years.

His remarkable recovery concluded in 2011 when he tallied 11 catches for 157 yards and three touchdowns; D.J. Grant hauled in 16 passes for 180 yards and three scores that season.

But, again, you’d have to go back to Finley’s days to find a TE that has eclipsed 200 yards receiving in a single season at Texas.

Last season, UT’s top three tight ends – converted WR John Harris, converted DE Greg Daniels, and JUCO TE Geoff Swaim – combined to catch 11 passes for 183 yards and two scores. That’s not going to cut it, and the Longhorns know it.

Louisville had two TE’s last season that caught more than 200 yards. Gerald Christian had 28 receptions for 426 yards and four touchdowns while Ryan Hubbell added 14 receptions and 236 yards.

“We have watched tape of Louisville and there was always opportunity,” Swaim said. “We are learning a new system. The passes will come. Right now we are worried about installing. Individually, that will take care of itself.”

Charlie Strong has vowed to make it a bigger part of the passing game this season if he can find enough capable bodies.

Daniels, who would have started alongside Swaim, will be out for the foreseeable future after suffering a knee injury late in fall camp. That forced the staff to move freshman linebacker Andrew Beck over to TE where he’s reportedly looked like a natural.

“You can’t get too detailed,” Swaim said when asked if UT’s TE’s would be used more in the passing game this season. “But ‘versatile’ is a good word to put around it. We are doing a little bit of everything now. You might see a different side of us that you didn’t see last year.”

Swaim, who transferred in from Butte College in 2013, has never been a huge receiving threat (caught nine passes for 88 yards and three TDs in 2012). But that has more to do with him not necessarily being targeted as much as he’d like, more so than his pass-catching ability.

“[Catching] has never been an issue,” he said. “As football players you just do what you are asked to do. There’s not a lot of time for questioning. When you are a good football player you do what you are told to do and do it as best as you can. When I am called upon to catch the ball I’m going to catch it and run. When I’m told to block I’m going to do that. There will be no drop off with that.”

After Swaim and the aforementioned Beck, Texas will rely upon JUCO transfer Blake Whiteley and junior M.J. McFarland.

Whiteley, who is from Vancouver, B.C., caught 76 passes for 1,228 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior in high school.

“Hard-worker,” Swaim said of Whiteley. “He has a good work ethic. He is a good guy to be around. He’s a good guy to rely on because you know what you are going to get. In terms of practice, everyone is in the same boat right now. We are all fighting for a spot.”

The coaches are still waiting for McFarland to tap into his seemingly limitless athleticism.

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